I’ll start with an apology, I have only read two stories by Alice Munro, so I don’t know if the conclusions I draw are representative of her body of work. It seems she is the consummate short story writer, so much so, she has dedicated her career to the art form. I don’t believe she’s written any novels, but she has produced collections of interlinked short stories in book form.
Recently I borrowed the 2007 and 2008 editions of The best American Short Stories series from the local library and Munro had a piece in both of them. Both stories dealt with unnatural deaths, but I fear my sample is too small to tell if this is an ongoing theme in her work.
Dimension begins with Doree catching three buses, at first I thought this was going to be a good old fashioned story of the road, but no, it turns out she is visiting a mental hospital near where she used to live. It turns out that her husband killed their three children in a jealous rage. This is the third time she’s gone out to see him, but he wasn’t available for the first two times she made the long trip. She is not sure how she is going to feel after the meeting. She is seeing a psychologist, and she describes the visit to her.
I find it interesting the way Alice Munro shows that life goes on after such a horrific event. Too often in the media, it seems there is a hyper interest in the event just after it occurs, and then another flurry of interest when the sentencing takes place, but once that happens, it appears the matter has concluded, at least in the eyes of the television and news reporters. When I was reading this story, I couldn’t help thinking of a case in Australia over the trial and subsequent unsuccessful appeal of a man who drove his three children into a lake.
The same can be said for a detective story or shows like CSI. All the characters are interested in the murder while it is being solved, but once solved, the characters are then able to forget about it and move onto the next case. Munro shows that there is at least someone who can’t just dust their hands afterwards.
Doree manages to see her husband on her third visit and is shocked at how thin he has grown and how much hair he has lost. She thinks that he looks like a ghost. She tells her psychologist that she will no longer visit her husband, but after receiving a letter from him, she makes the trip again. It seems that while he has been in the institution, he has been thinking, and he has come up with a theory that their three children are still alive, though in another dimension, or plane of reality. Over the next few weeks Doree is unable to dismiss this idea as nonsense, though she knows that she should.
The story ends in a beautiful redemptive moment when on the way out to the hospital again, Doree sees a pickup truck crash on the road in front of the bus. She and the bus driver get out, and go across. The bus driver calls for an ambulance, but it seems the teenage driver of the pickup truck is not breathing. Kneeling beside him, Doree remembers the CPR her husband taught her when they were married. She is able to give the young man mouth to mouth and get him breathing again. Because other drivers have now stopped, the bus driver wants to keep going to the institution, but Doree decides to stay with the boy until the ambulance arrives. She no longer has any desire to visit the institution again.
Now, I’ll confess, I don’t know exactly what the last part of the story means. Perhaps it’s not meant to offer a clear cut resolution to the story. It is a beautiful scene none the less, and it is the part I remember most vividly after putting the book down.
There’s a lot to be said for something where one can’t wrap the ending up neatly, and say, that story was about…