by Alice Munro
After I finished Runaway, the stunning new short story collection by Alice Munro, I had an eerie feeling that Munro was starting to say goodbye. Her career, which spans over nearly forty years and eleven other collections, is no doubt coming to a climax soon, although I have to hope she has a few more collections in her. As her voice continues to mature, her examination of the lives of twentieth century women has deepened and her complex prose style has reached a depth and ease that she has been moving toward throughout her career.
The title story has all the essential Munro elements: a young, working-class woman in rural Ontario with an independent streak who is unnecessarily dependent on love (or her version of love); an undercurrent of danger and despair; movement forward and backward through time; and enough twists to make it a great old-fashioned page-turner. This time she also includes a stock character in her later works — the older, more intellectual woman with emotional issues of her own to deal with. “Runaway” will no doubt become a staple of short story anthologies as soon as this collection hits paperback.
I’ve said it before, but let me thank again Whoever Is Listening that Alice Munro never went through an MFA program; instead, she has been able to craft her very own unique voice, which is unmatched in postmodern literature. Instead of being self-consciously avant garde or, well, postmodern, Munro’s stories have an organic feel — the way stories feel when they are being told by real women, with stops and starts, bends and turns, and going back for explanations, focusing more on feelings and reactions than twists of plot. There have been many times I have been reading Munro stories waiting for a question to be answered, a plot point to be revealed, only to realize that she wasn’t going to do it, and anyway that wasn’t the point of the story at all.
The trio of stories “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” previously published in the New Yorker over the summer, show off this style as well as any, as Munro follows Juliet, a young intellectual with a passionate streak through her early twenties and then into middle age, focusing on her relationships with her (technically unmarried) husband and their daughter. Although some of the dramatic details of this young woman’s life are told long-distance, with explanations rather than narrative, after reading the three stories and seeing the arc of this woman’s life from academia to decades of tenuous family life back to academia, you realize the story being told is one that is quite different than the domestic potboiler it first seemed to be.
Munro tries some new things, too, or at least reaches deeper into her range with the final story of the collection, “Powers.” She writes in first person for part of the story, which she rarely does. She reaches farther back in the twentieth century imagination than usual, starting out in the late twenties — Munro’s stories usually take place during an at least slightly later time period, which would be available to her in her own memory, from the Second World War, hovering strongly in the sixties and seventies and coming up to contemporary times. The story spans fifty years of time, which even for Munro is a pretty long span. She also includes the best of her repertoire, making this a kind of wonderful “kitchen sink” kind of Alice Munro story. She is able to include all of her stock characters, from the young, feisty girl to the middle-aged wife to the older, reflective widow in one character. Settings range from her usual Ontario (both rural AND Toronto) to her other standby, Vancouver, B.C., with a short trip to the U.S. (again, rarely done in a Munro story) thrown in for good measure. It’s as if, for the last story in this collection, she just lets loose, showing off every tool in her bag.
Reading Runaway came as the perfect denouement to my summer reading project this year, which among other things, consisted of reading all of Munro’s works that I hadn’t yet read (listed below), in addition to one that I had, Who Do You Think You Are?
Reading these books was such a great experience because having already been familiar with Munro’s voice, I was now able to see where it came from. And what a beautiful, bumpy ride it was. The collections from the 80’s highlight Munro’s transition to the expansive, mature voice she uses now. But the most fun ones to read were the oldest ones; in reading Munro’s first few collections, I saw the first fits and starts of a genius in the making.
Starting with Dance and going through Something, I was able to see the development of the voice she uses so effectively in Who? — the starts and stops, the flashbacks and fast forwards, and the clunky yet so vital human life that pulses through these stories. (And gorgeous, discrete stories they are; I refuse to agree with anyone who says that Who Do You Think You Are? or even, dare I say it, Lives of Girls and Women is a novel.) I say “clunky” in only the most worshipful sense: Munro rarely gives us life at its best or worst, but so elegantly gives us people at their least elegant, most real moments. No one is a victim; no one is a hero. No one goes far enough to destroy lives, except in the very early stories, but everyone goes just far enough to mess them up to varying degrees and then to recover, sometimes more successfully than others.
After spending several weeks with a constant diet of Munro’s narration, I even started feeling like a character in one of her stories. As I was walking up the stairs to my summer temp job (because temps don’t get elevator passes), or as I was bickering with my fiancé about the meaningless details of our small, informal wedding, I would start to hear that voice narrating my own humble, awkward, imperfect life. Perhaps this is the point where anyone without an Alice Munro addiction would start to question her own sanity. But for me, languishing in the setting sun of a summer reading project, it was the perfect way to end up.
At the end of the summer, I reread my favorite Alice Munro collection, entitled Who Do You Think You Are?, known in the U.S. as The Beggar Maid. Even after reading Runaway, which no doubt shows more maturity and depth, I still think Who? is Alice Munro’s best collection of stories. Every single one of the stories surrounding the life of the impeccably flawed Rose is strong enough to stand on its own; adding the stories together makes a more expansive whole than just a mere novel would. The statements the collection makes about stories and storytelling make classification as a novel impossible, even though some critics have tried. Both main characters are storytellers, with narratives constantly overlapping and undergoing revision.
Rose grows up poor and smart — always a bad combination, as she learns over and over, from her stepmother Flo’s kitchen table to a meeting of scholarship students to her middle aged years as a divorced teacher, actress, and eventually celebrity. Rose can never go home again, and yet she does so anyway, both literally to take care of Flo in her old age, as well as with the baggage from her youth that she carries with her across the continent and back. Rose never seems to totally regret or completely accept anything, which creates beautiful scenes of self-indulgent, oblivious action and reaction — in other words, normal human behavior the likes of which is rarely seen in literary fiction.
I once had the great good fortune to be a student in a graduate seminar in literature in which people actually talked about books as if they loved them. The Beggar Maid was an assigned text, and one which caused much debate. Was Rose victim, vixen, or villain? Was Flo obnoxious gossip or judicious folk teacher? Both, all, everything. I could read a hundred more stories about Rose and Flo. But every time I read these ten, I grow to love them, and their characters, more.
It was within the context of this reading project, and after having been immersed in Munro’s voice for months, that I read Runaway and began to get the sense that Munro was starting to wind down. Of course, this is a morbid thing to say, and I struggled with whether or not to include this impression in my review, but Munro is often so organically, unapologetically dark that I will take the risk here. [Stop reading here if you don’t want to know how the collection ends.] The ambitious “Powers,” which ends the collection, ends with an older woman telling a stop-and-start story in which she herself does not even know all the important details, and then sitting in a rocking chair and being pulled out of her reverie by “some calm and decisive person,” who could be her lost husband. This seems to me a metaphor for a storyteller who is contemplating the end of her career. As she moves away from her story, it begins to “crumble behind her, to crumble and darken tenderly into something like soot and soft ash.” For an author who has so much to say in her stories about storytelling itself, this seems like an acknowledgment that the stories will someday no longer exist; it seems a statement on the author’s own mortality and infallibility, which is just another reason that this collection, and Munro’s work, is so astonishingly remarkable, humbly beautiful. As always, she remains in control of stories that seem almost uncontrollable. As always, the astounding Alice Munro remains my favorite.