Alice Munro, Runaway

After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction.

Familial and romantic relationships are central in Runaway, and in a couple of instances Munro spins the development out beyond the length of a single story.  In “Chance” for instance, we read a beautiful and hopeful story of a couple coming together; the characters reappear in the next story, “Soon,” where we read a much more complicated continuation of the same family. “Chance” ends with Juliet and Eric in each others’ arms. (Well, not quite; the couple comes together with this breathtaking paragraph–

She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay. (85)

–which Munro gently sets down by adding a bit of context, a bit of explanation, and the faintest sketch of the couple’s life together. The actual end of the story is not an image of Juliet and Eric together, but the perhaps more intriguing mention of the “submerged rivalry” of Juliet and Christa, Eric’s former lover.)

“Soon” takes place many years later, and complicates the emotions of the first story with the inevitable growth and change as characters spend their lives together.  As I started “Soon,” it came as a surprise to see Juliet re-emerge; Munro’s exquisite skills as a short story writer mean that each piece conveys a sense of perfect wholeness on its own, making the continuation unexpected, but the added nuance of the connected stories multiplies the effect of each. Excellent short stories always create a tension for me: I want so much to see the writer continue developing the characters into a full-blown novel, and yet I know that the very thing I love so much depends on the succinct form of the story.

I came across this review by Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times in 2004, and was amused to find that he gives free reign to the gushing admiration that I have been trying somewhat to temper:

“The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!”

(Franzen’s review is excellent, by the way, and worth reading in its entirety.)

I’m selfishly glad that there are still so many of Munro’s stories ahead of me to read. I suspect I’ll be returning often.


“Dear Life” by Alice Munro

What I had been looking for in a novel, I found in a short personal reflection instead. I hadn’t seen Munro’s name in the table of contents of the September 19th New Yorker; I was flipping the page to skip over Shouts & Murmurs (which I almost never like), and her first paragraph snuck up on me and made my breath catch a little in my chest.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me. Behind me, as I walked home from primary school, and then from high school, was the real town with its activity and its sidewalks and its streetlights for after dark. Marking the end of town were two bridges over the Maitland River: one narrow iron bridge, where cars sometimes got into trouble over which one should pull off and wait for the other, and a wooden walkway, which occasionally had a plank missing, so that you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.

The scene is straightforward, as is the language, but the pace willfully departs from the sharp clip of much contemporary writing. Munro makes the reader breathe a little slower and savor the childhood scene, pausing over the gap in the bridge that opened onto the water, mourning a little the loss of small wonders.

I have only read a little of Munro’s work before, but what I have read, I loved. I was halfway through Too Much Happiness when I forgot it on a plane; I bought a Kindle version so that I could keep reading right away. (I really hope someone picked up the book and enjoyed it.) What struck me in those stories, as in this piece, was the depth of the cruelty and the luminous beauty that Munro draws out. The feeling, for me, is not unlike looking at a perfectly exposed black and white photograph, with pockets of deep black and pure white calling attention to the full range of greys that fill the frame. The cruelty of the priest pronouncing satisfaction instead of a eulogy at the prostitute’s funeral; the absurdity of Mrs. Netterfield attacking the delivery boy with an axe over forgotten butter; the pain of watching a parent’s health deteriorate so completely surpassing the less-felt suffering of poverty. Munro narrates each of these moments with such specificity and care that the emotion of each resonates deeply with the reader, despite the unfamiliarity of the setting. I felt like I read the piece more with my breath than with my brain, which was a really wonderful feeling.

I’ve now added Runaway to my to-read list, too. If anyone reads this post and wants to read the book along with me, let me know–I’d love to eventually turn this blog into a little more of a dialogue so that I can hear how other people have read what I’m reading.