by Alice Munro
ISBN: 077106506X

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A Review of: Runaway
by Jeremy Lalonde

I was surprised by Runaway, coming as it does-a mere two years after the appearance of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (let me also admit to biting my tongue every time I utter that last title). It seemed a matter of course that Munro produced a collection of stories every three to four years-stories that would have readers all abuzz and critics invoking the name of Chekov or the company of greatest-living-short-story-writers. Despite working well ahead of schedule, Munro does not take short cuts: the eight stories in Runaway are a virtuoso performance; they crystallize many of the themes, situations and character types that have made her famous. Munro also demonstrates that she's not beyond taking some risks, pushing each of these eight stories a bit further and stepping out of her comfort zone as a writer.
Munro remains true to her recent form and begins Runaway with a mystery. In "Runaway", the reader is thrown into the middle of a story in progress where they must assume a detective-like function, piecing together what they can from the details the author provides. In a sense, all writing demands a measure of literary sleuthing from the reader; but the paradigm seems particularly well-suited for discussing stories like "Runaway"-stories that demand that the reader assemble the scattered clues in order to decipher the outcome. "Runaway" opens on Carla as she watches her neighbour, Sylvia, driving slowly past her vantage point inside a ramshackle barn. The scene is suffused with a sense of dread that is fleshed out over the next several pages: Carla's husband, Clark, has decided to extort money from Sylvia; Clark is psychologically unstable, given to violent mood swings; without financial independence, Carla is literally trapped in her mobile home with Clark. The constant rain and a succession of claustrophobic settings reinforce the sense of imminent violence.
As the title signals, Carla leaves her husband (with the assistance of Sylvia). But Carla decides to return because she believes that Clark can change his ways; beyond that, the reasons for her return are never made clear. While there's no shortage of homecomings in Munro's fiction, never before has there been one so problematic. Finally, Carla must confront two versions of the same sequence of events-one told by Clark, the other by Sylvia. Clark has been keeping secrets. There may be a skeleton awaiting discovery in the woodlot.
While Carla is able temporarily to suppress her desire for closure (she stays clear of the bare tree where the vultures roost), she and the reader are left with two possibilities: Clark's foul temper was a momentary lapse of self-control-a product of miserable weather and financial distress (both have improved by the story's end); alternatively, Clark may be secretly harbouring a murderous rage. Munro places her protagonist and her reader in the position of having to choose between two competing versions of events; while Munro doesn't privilege one version over another, a choice, based on the available evidence, must be made.
"Tricks" might be read as a mystery (as might "Silence" and "Trespasses"), but it distinguishes itself as a Shakespearean comedy (or is it a tragedy?) gone off the rails (significantly, Robin, the central character, has recently attended stagings of King Lear and As You Like It). A longstanding case of mistaken identity is only cleared up in the story's final pages, too late for everyone involved; the story ends, not in marriage, but not quite in tragedy, either. Robin is left to contemplate how the rituals that order our lives in meaningful ways are conventions, not unlike "any world concocted on the stage. Their flimsy arrangement, their ceremony of kisses, the foolhardy faith enveloping them that everything would sail head as planned."
I found myself rereading "Tricks", not in the interests of gathering clues or piecing together what happened (Munro's mysteries often demand this), but to ponder how the story acquires its remarkable poignancy. In the story's final pages, Munro conjures an epiphanic moment and releases it fluttering into the air above the audience. And even if you're watching her carefully, it's impossible to catch how she does it-it's impossible to explain away the magic of the moment.
If you've read any of Munro's other books, you will be familiar with how she projects writerly concerns onto actors, journalists or teachers (the list can go on). These same concerns are memorably evoked in "Powers". "Powers" follows the lives of Nancy and her friend, Tessa, a small-town psychic. After a write-up in Saturday Night, Tessa becomes somewhat famous and undertakes a tour of the United States (where the money is, as one character puts it). Whether her gifts fail her, whether they were never there to begin with, or whether they can't be called up at leisure is never resolved, but Tessa's career ends badly.
"Powers" is a sombre meditation on the nature of creativity that spans over forty years and makes use of first-person diary entries, letters and a third-person narrator. It's an ambitious story, to say the least. In a final dream vision, the distinction between the third-person narrator and Nancy is blurred, not to suit some purpose, but through the use of indistinct pronouns (she? she who?). It's almost as if Munro had planned to reveal that the central character has been the narrator all along-that she's seated somewhere in the future, writing this story-and then backed away from the idea. Munro has established that she is adept at handling complex narratives, but she almost loses control of this one.
Since Who Do You Think You Are?, readers have been waiting for another short story cycle. I would have liked to announce that the waiting is over, but that would have been only partly true: "Chance", "Soon" and "Silence" constitute a distinct cycle amidst the other five unlinked stories in this collection. In "Chance", Juliet Henderson is an over-achieving graduate student of Classics in her twenty-first year. After heading west for a brief hiatus from her studies, she ends up meeting Eric, the man who will become her long-time partner, and settling in a small fishing community. "Soon" documents Juliet's return to her home in Southwestern Ontario with her infant daughter, Penelope, to visit her dying mother. Juliet's ambivalence toward both her parents and the town that she grew up in are developed over the course of the story.
There are obvious parallels between the trajectory of the narrative so far and other work by Munro, particularly Who Do You Think You Are? But the third story, "Silence", extends the narrative into Juliet's old age as she is forced to cope with her daughter's disappearance. Initially, Juliet suspects the leader of a new-age cult of brainwashing her daughter and spiriting her away. Over the years, Juliet comes to learn that Penelope is alive, married with children and living somewhere in the Canadian North. All this comes to Juliet second-hand-Penelope has completely cut herself off from her mother. The reasons for this mother-daughter rift are complex; clearly, Penelope is reacting against Juliet's progressive lifestyle-in particular, her total disavowal of the rituals of marriage, burial and, more generally, religion. Along with Juliet, we never know for sure because Penelope maintains her indecipherable silence. "Silence" represents a final stage in the mother-daughter drama that is played out across Munro's oeuvre. Here we have the story of a daughter who has left home to make a life for herself, told from the perspective of a mother who cannot comprehend this choice. This is a familiar story told from an unfamiliar angle-it is as if Munro has finally brought us full circle.
So now we come to it. Is Runaway Munro's best work to date? I can't say that it is. In spite of Munro's technical brilliance, the stories are all vaguely familiar; besides the Juliet Henderson cycle of stories, there isn't much to set this collection apart from Hateship. Don't get me wrong, I like all of these stories (I like Hateship too) and Runaway is sure to number among the best Canadian literary offerings of the year. It's just that Munro has been pushing the limits of the short story form for so long that I expected a sea change from this collection. Instead, I felt a mild seismic shrug-memorable enough, but hardly earth shattering.

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