Whenever a new collection of stories by Alice Munro appears, which is often enough, reviewers compete to see who can gush about her most hyperbolically. She is "the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years" (The Atlantic), "the best fiction writer now working in North America" (Jonathan Franzen in The New York Times). Her stories make you remember "why you eat, read, make love, whatever" (The Washington Post). Munro is routinely compared to Anton Chekhov, but you get the sense that if Chekhov himself came back to life and started writing again at the top of his game, the critics would sigh, "This is great, but he's no Alice Munro."
Now, I love Alice Munro. But is she obviously a greater writer than Marilynne Robinson, say, or Lydia Davis? Something else is going on: Read the reviews in bulk and you're struck by how personal many of them are. One reviewer of "Dear Life" tells us that, when she was a young writer, just starting out, she wrote Munro a fan letter.
If anything in her writing explains this privatized veneration, it must be Munro's creepy ability to create characters who seem to arrive on the page with rich and intact inner lives. It's an illusion of small touches, the legerdemain of brush strokes. A few sentences, a stray thought, and a person blossoms before us, lurching down the platform with all the tattered luggage of real life. It's not that she gives us access to her characters' inner lives, exactly — everyone's finally unknowable, many of her stories seem to say — but that she understands which anecdotes and gestures and turns of phrase denote people truly, individuate them, indicate that, however well their masks disguise the contours of their true faces, there are indeed true faces behind the masks.
And yet, that's not entirely accurate — for the characters whose inner lives Munro delineates in this way are not "people" in general, but, usually, women. This is a limitation of her fiction — as Ruth Franklin has written, "Chekhov was never so neglectful" as to exclude one half of humanity from his fullest representations. Marilynne Robinson gave us, in "Gilead's" John Ames, as rich a portrait of a man's inner life as any man now writing could paint. But men in Munro are often ciphers, automatons of cruelty and caprice, as inscrutable to her protagonists as her protagonists are alive to her readers.
Yet Munro, her intelligence as high-tensile as piano wire, turns this limitation to her advantage. In "Amundsen," one of the best stories here, a young woman arrives in rural Canada to teach at a tuberculosis hospital. The head doctor, a sententious fool, invites her to dinner, they sleep together and he says, "I do intend to marry you." That's it — he doesn't ask her, he announces his intention. There's no intimate courtship. We learn nothing about him, except that he visits petty humiliations upon every woman in his orbit. Why does she accept? She seems not to know, herself. On the day they are to be married, as they are parked in front of a hardware store, about to drive to see a justice of the peace, he tells her he can't go through with it.
And here Munro shines: We are not given the conversation in which he calls off the wedding. Her camera pulls back; we are outside the car, cannot hear what he is saying. Instead, while he is talking, we are told that at the hardware store, "Shovels for snow removal are on sale for half price. There is still a sign in the window that says skates can be sharpened inside." This is the teacher's detachment from the scene, her sense of unreality expressing itself as hyper-awareness of irrelevant things — a state of mind, common in emotional distress, whose representation haunts Munro's stories. It's also the objective correlative to men's inaccessibility. They hurt women. Their reasons for doing so are unimportant and, anyway, alien: inarticulate murmurs from parked cars. We only learn the substance of the exchange when the teacher thinks of the doctor as "the man sitting beside me who was going to marry me but now is not going to marry me." A delivery-truck driver has knocked on the window and asked them to move the car. And it's not what the doctor has said to her that convinces her that it truly is over, but his easy shift into the "male-to-male tone to the driver." Male-to-male is another world, with its own impenetrable customs and codes.
As they drive off to the train station — the doctor having decided it would be best for the teacher to leave the hospital and return to Toronto, a plan to which she acquiesces with the habitual acquiescence of Munrovian women — the teacher clings to the lover who has spurned her:
It's something like being driven to the place of execution. Not yet. A little while yet. Not yet do I hear his voice for the last time. Not yet.
This echo of the prosecutor's speech in "The Brothers Karamazov" tells us not that Munro has read Dostoevsky, but that the teacher has. It's an exquisite stroke, one that lets us know she's already begun to conceive of the experience within the ideal, distancing reality of fiction.
No other author can tell quite so much with quite so little. The modest surfaces of Munro's lapidary sentences conceal rich veins of ore. True, there is a sameness to the stories — the punishing men, the rural outposts, the women subject to the whims of fates beyond their ken. "Leaving Maverley" has a male protagonist, a policeman, but the story concerns a young woman who tries to escape her controlling father, a religious fanatic who sets rules that make sense to no one and lets her take a job as a movie ticket taker on the condition she not watch or listen to the movies. The policeman walks her home from the theater and must explain to her that movies have plots: "He had to tell her what that meant — that there were stories being told."
The stories being told here are as compelling as ever, even with their repetitions, and the suite of four pieces gathered under the title "Finale" marks a departure for Munro: These "not quite stories" are "autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact." Brief memories, anecdotes, they are like Alice Munro stories whose first-person narrator just happens, for once, to be the person who became the writer Alice Munro. In the eponymous not-quite-story, she records the name of the man who lived in the house that faced her childhood home:
Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I'm writing now, in spite of his troll's name, because this is not a story, only life.
Munro is in her 80s now, and despite her counterintuitive devaluation of the nonfictional bulk of existence, that's what she's been giving us, all these years: "only life." It could be the title of her collected works.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
By Alice Munro, Knopf, 319 pages, $26.95