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The New Canon: Runaway by Alice Munro

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Storytellers usually delight in decisive heroes. But author Alice Munro has made her mark as a connoisseur of indecisive protagonists. Instead of Julien Sorel, who rises from poverty to conquer high society in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, instead of Captain Ahab who goes fishing but will settle for nothing smaller than Moby Dick, Munro presents us with characters who have second thoughts, then third thoughts, then second thoughts on their third thoughts. They are focused on what, in the popular parlance, is called “processing.”

“It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself,” writes Munro of a typical protagonist in the story “Trespasses.” “She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all.” In the title story to the collection Runaway, a woman decides suddenly that she wants to abandon her husband, but on the bus out of town she changes her mind, forces the driver to let her off and calls her spouse to have him pick her up. Her husband, meanwhile, is planning to blackmail a neighbor, but then changes his mind just as quickly as his wife has done. Let others worry about the purpose-driven life or the five-year plan; Munro is our leading chronicler of the irresolute, our poet of the desultory.

This sensitivity to the changeable imparts a sense of heady realism to Munro’s accounts. One of the most dispiriting trends in contemporary storytelling — especially on TV and at the movies — is the predictability with which plots move toward their expected resolution. An unabashedly likable hero or heroine overcomes the usual obstacles, only to emerge triumphant in the final scene, maybe with time for a final laugh or tear before the curtain comes down. Munro will have none of this, and the truest thing one could say of her stories is that you can never anticipate how they will end, because the resolutions are more like those you encounter in the world than on the page or screen. Often that means matters remain unresolved. The processing continues, off-stage, after our involvement in the story concludes.

If Munro’s characters suffer from indecision, they are remarkably patient when it comes to brooding over the past. Several stories in Runaway hinge on events that characters continue to obsess over decades after the fact. In “Tricks,” Robin meets a man from Montenegro and they spend a single day together, before exchanging kisses and bidding farewells — and decades later she is still wondering about what might have been. In the longest story, the novella “Powers” which concludes the collection, Nancy frets about a relationship between her husband’s cousin and a former classmate in the 1920s, and she is still fretting in the 1970s. In other stories, adoptions, deaths and adult children who have moved away serve as recurring causes of anxiety and — yes! — second-guessing.

Munro is a Canadian writer both by birth and orientation — many of her tales are set in her native Ontario, where she was born in 1931. But most readers will associate her even more closely with The New Yorker, where the majority of the stories in Runaway originally appeared. In many ways, she is the current-day author most representative of that magazine’s “personal vignette” style of realist fiction, a worthy follower in the keystrokes of Cheever, Capote, Salinger and others. How odd that a periodical named for the most fast-paced and teeming city in the land should stand out for its nuanced tales of suburbia, small towns and country life! But this is Munro’s forte, and she is at her best when extracting the hidden drama from lives led outside the glare of neon lights.

Munro also knows when to pull back, when to leave things unsaid. “Silence” is a fitting title for her story of a mother who comes to pick up her daughter, a young lady who has gone away on a spiritual retreat. When she arrives, she finds that her daughter has already left, for reasons that remain unclear. Did she need space to construct her own life? Did she object to her mother’s influence over her? Or her mother’s values? Or lack thereof? The silence continues for weeks, then years, but it is more than just a breakdown in family communication. Even motivations, underlying causes, long-term effects remain elusive.

Yes, just like your life, my life. Stories often beguile us by taking the messy events of day-to-day experience, and presenting them as unfolding in an orderly, comprehensible process. Munro won’t play that game, and if you yearn for clarity and closure, she won’t be your kind of writer. Let others celebrate the decisive heroes, the captains who go in search of the great white whale. We wish them luck. Meanwhile, as Munro’s readers have learned, the murky waters close to shore sometimes hold even greater surprises.

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About Ted Gioia

  • Nice review, Ted. I hadn’t gotten around to reading any Munro yet. But, you’ve just moved her way up on my list of “need to reads”.