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Unpacking Alice

In his new biography, Robert Thacker studies the gorgeous minutiae of "Canada's Chekhov"

What can one say about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said a million times? In the years since her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, unexpectedly won the 1968 Governor General’s Award, the public record has swollen with inky love for her. A short sojourn on the Internet will turn up countless reviews, press profiles, publishers’ biographies, a New York Times Online special section, undergraduate essays for purchase, fan pages and even medical notes on her work. She’s brilliant we’re told: reclusive, prolific, unassuming, unstoppable. Canada’s Chekhov. The Flaubert of Ontario. The greatest living short-story writer.

Despite this, and the semblance that she can apparently do no wrong, there is no definitive biography of Munro. That she’s still alive and working may account for this, or maybe it’s because she is very selective about those to whom she speaks. Two attempts at unifying Munro’s story into one volume have failed to capture the author in an authoritative way. Catherine Ross’s Alice Munro: A Double Life, published in 1992, proved to be premature while Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro, penned by Munro’s daughter, turned out to be more memoir than biography.

Now we have Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives. Written by Robert Thacker and published by Munro’s own publisher (Douglas Gibson Books at McClelland & Stewart) it promises to be the book about the Wingham, Ontario, native. Thacker appears to be the natural choice to write such a tome: he’s been studying Munro since 1975, has published academic material on her work and obtained not just her permission but her co-operation in his biographical pursuit.

Even before cracking open the massive 603-page behemoth, I had to admire Thacker. I imagine the challenges in executing this project were gigantic—one of the most formidable must certainly have been facing up to Munro’s reputation. How would he deal with the near-universal positivity of her reviews? Or with the expectations of Munro-nerds like myself who nurse unhealthy obsessions with her sentences? Would he seek out the details of her writing process? Balance praise with criticism? Would he question her canonization or contribute to it?

The answers to these questions are identical and can all be found in the book’s title. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives is structured around the query most asked of fiction writers: How much of it is true? Thacker uses most of his pages to illustrate how pieces of Munro’s life are portrayed in her fiction and information that falls outside of this investigation is barely touched.

This fact does not diminish what the book achieves. Munro is, after all, an autobiographical writer of fiction. Plus, common as though it may be, the real-versus-imaginary theme is, in Thacker’s hands, a salient and noble one. His knowledge of Munro’s life is so solid and his reading of her work so close that it’s difficult to question him. The sheer size of the book, including sixty-six pages devoted to appendices and indexes, testifies to his abilities with research.

Think you’ve read every word that Munro’s written? You haven’t—Robert Thacker has. From her early stories in defunct magazines like The Montrealer to a piece in the Wingham Advance-Times in which she defends fictionalizing her hometown, this biographer makes clear from the get-go that his knowledge of his subject is beyond reproach. Authority is a compulsory quality for a biographer—without it, readers can become the terminal point for an author’s well-ground axe. While it is clear that he’s done his homework, Robert Thacker also earns his authority with his presentation of the avalanche of details he has uncovered. We learn everything—from Munro’s philosophy of authorship to her past mailing addresses to the pretentious spelling of her name that she used in high school (“Alys”).

One of many pieces that he’s dug up from the Alice Munro special collection at the University of Calgary is “Changing Places,” a personal essay published only in the New Yorker that discusses the emigration of Munro’s ancestors from Scotland. Writing’s first chapter uses this work as a point of initiation to launch into an exhaustive study of the counties, villages, towns and townships that housed Munro’s family. He then draws from her fictional works, uncovering connection after connection between her reality and her fiction. He uses the technique throughout the book—stories are a window to reality which in turn is a window to further stories.

Thacker, as noted earlier, is an academic who has “steeped himself in Alice Munro’s work since 1975.” An American who studied in Canada, he wrote some of the earliest scholarly papers on her and is now a professor of Canadian Studies at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. The book reflects this: never does it dwell on the literary texture of Munro’s life (despite the wealth of drama there, from divorce to affairs to fame) and never does he sacrifice his central goal for the sake of imposing his own narrative. As a pulse-pounding recounting of biographical events, Writing Her Lives falls flat—but as a work of scholarship, it soars.

The academic nature of the book manifests itself most forcefully in the structure. Overall, Writing moves as expected—chronologically—but each chapter operates within its own structural universe. Thacker begins with a summary that’s first tactfully laid out and then slowly unpacked through various topical sections. These sections zoom in to provide staggering, revelatory, remarkable—and periodically painful—detail. In learning about the publication of Munro’s third book, Who Do You Think You Are?, readers are treated to several mini-stories, each in its own section. There's the publishing debacle that unfolded as the book was going to press, the publishing of the stories in magazines, the reviews and the debate over foreign rights. Each step is presented as mutually exclusive, though in reality they frequently overlapped.

The strategy produces mixed results. The looping of time allows Thacker to hint at upcoming events without explaining them. The result is an enjoyable tension that forces readers to ask questions—Why doesn’t Munro write novels? What happened to her first marriage? Will she ever be considered for a Nobel Prize?—in full confidence that the answers will arrive in due time. Too often, though, the chunks are moved around with such velocity that one could end up with narrative whiplash. Particularly toward the end of the book I found myself jerked back and forth through time so often that I became disoriented.

Like these structural hiccups, the prose itself has moments of failure. It’s not that Thacker is the sort of academic that uses thick, endless sentences—there is nary a whiff of theory in Writing Her Lives. The flaws in the writing largely spring from Thacker’s lack of creativity; he repeats words, constantly returns to the same phrases and offers virtually no sense of his own voice. Munro’s relationships with her lovers, husbands, children, detractors and admirers are all treated clinically, and always within the scope of her fiction and career.

To his credit, Thacker knows this about himself and his intention with the tone seems to be to avoid any subjectivity (the acknowledgements at the end of book reveal that he can be a very engaging and intimate writer). There are a few exceptions—curt phrases like “as well it should” and “indeed it did”—but generally (and wisely) he relies on quotes from other authors whenever possible. This primary source information mostly comes from Munro herself, but there are also significant passages from the work of reviewers, editors, agents and other fiction authors (such as John Metcalf, with whom Munro was romantically involved in the nienteen-seventies). These are the people that have touched Munro’s career from its early stages in the sixties right up to her latest publication in New Yorker magazine—and it’s quite the cavalcade of literary luminaries. They’re all here: Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Mordechai Richler, Mavis Gallant, Douglas Gibson, Jack McClelland, Peter Gzowski and many more.

Luckily, but not coincidentally, Munro’s career straddles a period of great change in the Canadian psyche—one that was literary, political, nationalistic and social. Rarely do we get the opportunity to examine this phenomenon, and Munro is one of the first writers who both represents the expansion of our national narrative and is worthy of a comprehensive biography. Writing shows how key publications like Saturday Night and Tamarack Review boosted this country’s literary character, and how women’s magazines like Chatelaine gave opportunities to female writers that would not have existed otherwise. Regional differences at the CBC, its literary journalist Robert Weaver and radio shows like Anthology are all given plenty of play, and Thacker rightly implies that their significance cannot be understated. As a new author myself, I felt a huge tenderness toward Thacker’s picture of a non-competitive CanLit scene in which Laurence and Atwood would pop by for tea, desperate to help one another out.

But the hits don’t stop there. Thacker’s tireless research turns up a good deal of American and British material. Especially when describing her post-Open Secrets career does he offer criticism from big names in the foreign press, including John Updike and Allan Hollinghurst. Reading what Lorrie Moore had to say about Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage was one of my favourite parts of Writing Her Lives—it was one of my heroes taking on another one of my heroes.

I wouldn’t recommend approaching this volume without having read at least some of Munro’s books, but for lit-heads—particularly fans of short fiction—there is much to digest. One moment in particular will take their breath away: “[Munro] has not yet done the [explicitly autobiographical] ‘kind of family book’ she mentioned here, but she is still planning it—the book has a tentative title, Power in the Blood, and Munro has spoken of it as her last book. It is planned for 2006.”

The notion that we may now have all of Munro’s fiction in hand is a sad one indeed. But if nothing else, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives proves that there is still much to be said about this author and that her fiction will have a long life after she retires. Indeed, Thacker’s web of histories, cultural indicators and intimate artistry was spun out of love for Munro’s stunning stories—the same love that will soon be shared by all who care about literature (that is, if it isn’t shared already).

Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives

by Robert Thacker

Publication date: November 12, 2005

Douglas Gibson Books

603 pages


Matthew Fox is an associate editor at Maisonneuve magazine and the author of Cities of Weather, a collection of short stories—two things he'd never have achieved without being inspired by Alice Munro.