Review

Runaway: Stories

by Alice Munro



I have been learning to knit lately, and I'm still at the stage
where each stitch is awkward and laborious. Watching my friend and
teacher do it is quite different --- smooth and rhythmic, neither
too much tension nor too little. I see that knitting is a
mysterious architecture of wool and soul in which every loop and
turn depends on every other, and with a single missed link the
whole web can collapse.

Reading the Canadian writer Alice Munro is similar to this. Her
stories are woven with such craft that it seems almost as if she is
describing something that really happened rather than inventing it.
And the consequences of a lucky encounter or a fateful decision are
still playing out years later.

I must admit that I was intimidated by the prospect of reviewing
Munro's latest collection, RUNAWAY, named one of the 10 Best Books
of 2004 by the New York Times. She is probably my favorite
living writer, and so unpretentious about what she does that the
last thing I want is to describe her fiction in words fancier or
more self-conscious (in one review, I found adumbrate,
transformative, sustenance, and salvation)
than the language she uses herself.

I'm not alone in feeling perplexed. Jonathan Franzen, writing in
the New York Times Book Review (November 14, 2004), was so
reluctant to do an ordinary review of this extraordinary writer
that instead he produced a (brilliant) list of "guesses at why
[Munro's] excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame." And it's
true: She is revered rather than celebrated --- no Pulitzer, no
Nobel, not even a National Book Award (though she has won plenty of
other prizes). Possibly (Franzen mentions this) it has to do with
literary form: Short stories (Munro has written only one novel)
have not been --- since the days of Chekhov (with whom she is
regularly compared) and Saki, Katherine Mansfield and O'Henry ---
as valued as much as novels. They're just not considered Big-Deal
Lit.

But I am procrastinating. Without giving away the often devastating
twists and surprises of the plots of these eight stories (if
literary fiction isn't supposed to be suspenseful, somebody forgot
to tell Munro), this is what I'd say to somebody who has never read
her (if you have, you probably already have your own copy of
RUNAWAY).

The first thing is the characters: I wouldn't say they are
memorable in the sense that Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina are, but
unlike either of those fictional ladies, they are endearingly
ordinary: They don't swan around being melodramatic or heroic or
incurably romantic. They are often smart, ardent girls, different
from others at school, hungry for books and adventure and mystery
--- like Grace in "Passion," one of my favorites in the collection.
Here, Munro has crystallized the stuff of many a coming-of-age
novel --- the innocence and fakery, the fear and the splendor ---
into one powerful memory of a seductive family and a reckless ride.
This is Munro's gift: She gathers us in with ordinary details, and
a whole world opens up.

The second thing is the place: not just Canada, but a patch of
western Ontario. Munro roots almost all her stories in this area a
few hours from Toronto, where she grew up and now lives. "I am
intoxicated by this particular landscape," she has said, and she
seeds it with city people transplanted to the country (like Carla
and her husband with their horse farm in the title story,
"Runaway") or country people learning urban ways. There is always a
tension between these two, and between other recurrent oppositions
as well --- marriage and solitude, survival and suicide, faith and
apostasy. Duality runs through her work like a bright thread.

The third thing that is so compelling about RUNAWAY is a powerful
sense of fate, chance, destiny --- the exact word is unimportant.
Frequently the structure of the stories works in a circle; you
can't understand the beginning of "Trespasses" until you have read
the end. Or, as in the case of the trio of interlinked stories
about a woman named Juliet, you don't understand the implications
of an accidental meeting in "Chance" and a fairly uneventful visit
to aging parents in "Soon" until you read the third story,
"Silence." These tales aren't just chronologically and thematically
connected; what Munro does is more like planting time bombs in the
narrative that will explode later on, when you least expect
them.

This quality is even stronger in "Tricks." Robin, a nurse who lives
near Stratford, Ontario, goes to see a Shakespeare play (until
then, her only passion) and encounters --- yes, by accident ---
Danilo, a man from Montenegro. They agree that they will meet again
a year later. What happens then is a life --- and we follow Robin
until she is in her sixties --- that has the arc and heartbreak and
curious detachment of genuine tragedy. "Tricks" is so bold, so
horrifying and at the same time so satisfying that I lived with it
for days afterward.

Even though these stories are often piercingly sad, they aren't
depressing. There is a wonderful strength and survivorship in the
girls and women of RUNAWAY. In "Chance" Munro writes of Juliet's
love of Greek (her degree is in Classics) as her "bright treasure";
in "Tricks," similarly, of Robin's anticipation of her next meeting
with Danilo: "She was aware of a shine on herself, on her body, on
her voice and all her doings." And in "Passion" Grace is told by
her fiancé's mother, "Women always have got something, haven't
they, to keep them going? That men haven't got."

RUNAWAY feels intimate and universal at the same time --- as if the
author is whispering in your ear and seeing into your heart and
laying bare your secrets. Perhaps that's because Munro herself has
spoken of the extreme vulnerability of the "thinly clothed" writer
who has only "the thing you're working on now." Her stories dig
under the fences of writer and reader, and it is both disturbing
and glorious.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

Runaway: Stories
by Alice Munro

  • Publication Date: October 26, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 140004281X
  • ISBN-13: 9781400042814