dearlifeYou reach “character” in fiction by showing how it configures the world around it. It’s as if the events in the world were the envelope but the letter inside is the person.

Alice Munro says that Peter “seemed” to want to get himself out of the way as his family is leaving by train. He stands on the platform; his family…beloved daughter Katy and wife Greta above him…looking out and down from the train window. It is one of two important scenes where Greta and Katy are looking down from that window.

I loved how Peter is described as loving his child: “as if he believed that she would continue to be a marvel to him”. His smile to his wife: ‘hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination in it.”

Determination. Peter is an engineer and taking a job out in the boondocks elsewhere in Canada. While he is gone, his wife and child are taking advantage of an invitation to house-sit in Toronto. So the family is separating. But that’s not the only way that they are separating.

Greta’s personality is a puzzle because it doesn’t fit into the life she has. She’s a poet of what I gather is rather gnomic verse. I like gnomic verse. She submits some poems to a magazine and gets published.

Peter is a kind, confident…but for Greta…bland husband. They have a nice assortment of bland friends who are in Peter’s profession.

Shall I define bland? There’s an inner, symbolic verbal tension about Greta. She holds herself back. Something that Munro helps to bring out by making her a poet of a kind of inbred, intense verse. There’s no way to satisfy that cognitive appetite while embedded in her family circle.

Munro has a backstory about her. Greta attends a party near a university where a writer is being honored. The party is being given at the house of the editor of the magazine where Greta’s poetry was published. That’s why she was invited. But she doesn’t know anyone at the party except the editor.

Greta attends the culturally elite party where she doesn’t fit in. Munro signals the alienation even before the party starts. Greta is attending the party alone. She doesn’t arrive by private car like the other guests but takes public transport, a bus. Once she arrives in the neighborhood of the party, Greta has to take a hike before she finds the right address.

So Greta is from Mars, before she walks through the door to the literary soiree. Munro can be without mercy to her characters. No mercy! It’s my character! Let her suffer! …I’m reacting to the character, to the substantive lives that Munro’s characters are experiencing. Sometimes it hurts.

Greta flounders at the party. She reacts by getting smashed. And she flounders even more. But then she meets this guy. He seems to be the sort of guy that you wouldn’t want to meet at a party unless you were smashed. Something about him creeps you out. Maybe it’s the way he hovers over Greta, like he’s not just talking to her but preying on her like he’s some large mosquito.

Greta leaves with mosquito man. His name is Harris. Harris drives her home saying that he’s decided NOT to kiss her. This makes Greta feel that she wants to be kissed.  Later that night Greta fantasizes about Harris. He’s not worth a fantasy. Munro makes it clear that there isn’t anything about Harris that stands out, except that he is available.

On the train, Greta and daughter Katy meet an engaging pair, Laurie and Greg, in the observation car. They’re a pair of actors that have fallen into giving shows in kindergartens to encourage reading readiness. Greg says that they are “preschoolers” meaning that they play before preschool age children. It’s the only acting work they could find. Greg and Laurie were a couple…only not now. Katy, who was initially put off by Greg, is gradually drawn in.

All of us have had the experience of meeting an appealing stranger on a train or plane. In the Dave Eggers novel, A Hologram for the King that the Guys discussed a while back, the lead character meets an alluring woman on a plane but doesn’t follow up with her. It would mean altering his itinerary. But that lack of initiative is a choice that reflects his personality. Patterns of such choices shape lives.

Greg and Laurie are beautiful and young. Munro describes them as unusually sleek and lean. Greg has dark crinkly hair. Laurie looks like a madonna.The charisma of stage presence always shows even when actors are just covering expenses as baristas, or waiters, or putting on children’s shows in schools. Haven’t you ever looked up suddenly from a restaurant table and thought: Wow, what am I looking at?

In a display of that charisma, Laurie and Greg begin to caw, warble and do strange singsongs to entertain Katy. They find the train’s children’s playroom and entertain all the children they can find. First drawing attention to himself, Greg turns the attention of the children to each other as he encourages role-playing games. Laurie says: “He doesn’t save himself up.” Greg is always giving himself out. Imagine such a character colliding with the insular Greta.

After the play session, Greta takes Katy to their compartment so the child can nap. Greg comes along. With the child asleep, some gentle stroking between Greg and Greta develops. Greta is alarmed that her child might wake. Greg takes her to his nearby berth. They’ll make love while Katy sleeps.

Afterwards Greta returns to her compartment and her daughter isn’t there. An impossible, this-isn’t-happening panic sets in as Greta frantically searches the car for her child, finding her, alarmingly, wedged into that dangerous no-man’s space between train cars.

Laurie has gotten off at her home in Jasper. Greg gets off farther down at Saskatoon. Peering
down through the train window, Greta sees the charismatic Greg imbedded now in his own family on the platform, in the same position relative to her that her husband occupied at the start of the trip.

That’s the second time I’ve used the word “imbedded”. In a few moments, Greg’s family will leave the platform and Greta will never see the adonis she just slept with again. Greta is acting like a voyeur with respect to her own lover. She can’t enter his life, only watch from the sidelines through a pane of glass. It’s like she’s a fly that’s been crushed to the wall.

None of the events that I’ve outlined, and those others that I haven’t, that Munro presents with detailed richness, makes “To Reach Japan” a story. It’s the collision of these events with Greta’s personality that makes a story. These events could happen, and a character like Greta not be there, and there would be no story. Open the envelope. Make the story.

“To Reach Japan” is the first story in Alice Munro’s new collection, “Dear Life”, available now from Knopf. I’ve arbitrarily decided to review the first three stories.

Is it like jumping off a diving board not knowing if the pool is filled? This is Alice Munro. You know the pool is filled. That much trust in the writer is justified if you’re fortunate enough to pick up “Dear Life”.