Four years ago, I quoted Rod Dreher about writer Flannery O'Conner. Rod was lambasting conservative and/or religious critics of Annie Proulx and Ang Lee for Proulx's novella, "Brokeback Mountain," and Lee's movie treatment of her work.
Ms. O'Connor once wrote that you don't have to have an educated mind to understand good fiction, but you do have to have "at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." The mystery of the human personality can never be fully plumbed, only explored. To the frustration of ideologues, artists like Annie Proulx and Ang Lee undertake a journey to those depths and return to tell the truth about what they've seen – which is not necessarily what any of us wants to hear. As Ms. O'Connor taught, "Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction."
Aristotle once asserted that “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” If, then, a work of "art" is to be considered "art," it ought to plumb the depths of the human condition and reveal to us something important about the mysteries of life. As Dreher and O'Conner observe, that can be a dusty business, but in the end, through, and perhaps out of, the dust should shine a penetrating light that enlightens the reader.
I thought about this as I finished two books recently, one I was reading for the second time. The first is Alice Munro's "Dear Life," the acclaimed author's latest selection of short stories. Ms. Munro is, and has been for decades, a darling of most critics, described as an "institution," and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book's stories are crafted with skill. As with most of her work, she recounts the lives of "ordinary people" and, according to many critics, through her spare prose makes those ordinary lives extraordinary.
I could not disagree more strongly. None of the many characters she creates bears any resemblance to any human being I have ever encountered, and in almost 65 years of life, I have encountered more than a few. They appear to be devoid of serious thought or of any sense of self-awareness, fail to possess any sense of a moral code (regardless of basis), and react to circumstances in ways that are, in may instances, simply bizarre. She is a talented technician, and, from a mechanical standpoint, is a master of a spare style that many critics apparently favor, some touting her as an author who tells more with less effort than other authors.
To what purpose? What inner significance, what "truth" has she revealed about human beings, other than that many of their lives are mundane, seemingly irrational, and ultimately without a purpose other than merely "existing?"
I don't think I'd be as caustic as the London Review of Books' Christopher Lorentz.
Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder. I grew attuned to the ways life is shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism. I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia that would rob them of the memories of the little adulteries they’d probably committed and must have spent their whole lives thinking about. ‘You’re reading them the wrong way,’ someone told me. This too ought to go without saying. Munro’s stories suffer when they’re collected because the right way to read them is in a magazine, where they can be tucked between, say, a report on the war in Syria and a reconsideration of Stefan Zweig to provide a rural interlude between current atrocities and past masterpieces, or profiles of celebrities or sophisticated entrepreneurs. A slice of sad life in the sticks, filtered through an enlightened eye and most likely set ‘in the old days’, as the first line of one of the stories in her new collection, Dear Life, puts it. It’s perhaps her consistency that her admirers cherish: ‘like butterscotch pudding on the boil’.
On the other hand, I do feel like I was sold a bill of goods by the nearly unanimous praise of her work by main-stream critics. She may have gotten me dusty, but she did not enlighten me. While that may be due to my inability to perceive her lessons because of my own shortcomings, I think it may be due more to Ms. Munro's intention, which is to tell stories that read well, that are cleverly polished, but have nothing of significance to reveal about human nature.
Instead of wasting a day of your life with "Dear Life," let me suggest an alternative, "11 Stories," a work of fiction that was initially self-published by a novelist from Houston named Chris Cander, but which later achieved some serious awards, including being named the 2013 Best Indie Fiction by Kirkus Reviews and receiving a Gold Medal at the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Aawards. I had originally read this book when it was first published, but gave my copy last fall to a young writer who I thought (correctly) might enjoy it. After venturing down Ms. Munro's barren rabbit hole, I recently purchased another copy of Ms. Cander's novel to read with a new outlook, and, perhaps, as an antidote to the seeming purposeless of Ms. Munro's acclaimed book.
Without revealing any plot spoilers, here's an excerpt from the summary of "11 Stories" on the Barnes & Nobel website:
This is a story about sacrifice and service, longing and love - and the abiding hopefulness of the human heart that connects us all.
In my second reading, the overriding theme seems to me to be that the essence of true "love" is the self-emptying of the individual in service to others. Of course, this is the essential definition of "agape," which, in turn, is the critical commandment to all of us who claim to wish to love others as God loves us. As far as I know, Ms. Cander is not a Christian and this is not an overtly religious novel. Instead, it is an intensely human novel, a work of art that takes a deep dive (no irony intended to those readers who may have read the book) into the depths of the human condition and tells us something universally significant about what the author has seen. Even in the course of loss, sorrow, and tragedy, what ultimately gives our lives meaning is found in the mystery of true love, in its purest form.
While I am neither a professional writer of fiction nor a professional critic of the same, I will add that Ms. Cander's prose also is technically polished and as spare as Ms. Munro's, perhaps in an even less self-conscious fashion than Ms. Munro's. She also cleverly interweaves separate stories of very different people around the core of a central character and a central theme, and she explores in a fascinating fashion "the elasticity of time" in a way that holds the readers attention and gives the unifying theme an interesting twist.
Your life is like a bucket filled with a finite number of hours, a bucket with a hole in the bottom, and a bucket whose contents you are never certain are not dripping out more rapidly than you would hope. As your hours leak away, never to be replaced, I suggest that they would be better spent reading "11 Stories" than "Dear Life."