||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.