Review of Alice Munro’s Runaway

Runaway
by Alice Munro
Knopf, 2004

*****

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.

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