I find it difficult to describe the experience of reading the short fiction of Alice Munro. Usually, I like my short stories to be a little bit weird and experimental — to play with form, the way George Saunders does, or to be good satire, or to take place somewhere I’ve never imagined. Alice Munro does none of this. Her stories deal with the complexity of human behavior, both good and bad. Her writing is dry, simple, and faintly witty, and I find that as she gets older, it mostly gets sparer. I’ve read reviewers who say that not much happens in her stories, but actually they’re pretty brightly studded with plot: runaways, suicides, marriages and divorces, decades of child-rearing, a man who institutionalizes his psychic wife when her clairvoyance no longer pays the bills, infidelity, sudden death, travel and homecoming, the kind of phone call none of us would rather receive. There isn’t much space in the stories (though they’re all pretty long — 40 or 50 pages) and so they go deep, instead.
In a lot of Munro’s work, she’s written about younger women. In Runaway, she is creating work that’s more about middle-aged and older women, who hold in themselves the knowledge of having been young. “Powers” is a good example of this. The first section of the story is Nancy’s diary from 1927, a little masterpiece of a young, meddling, self-centered girl. There’s no nostalgia here and no information given: Munro knows that the past wasn’t quaint to the people living in it. Nancy plays a foolish April Fool’s joke on a young doctor and then is too embarrassed to turn down his offer of marriage. Her friend, Tessa, a clairvoyant, is also tangled up in marriage with a young man who is out for his own financial gain. Decades later, and after a horrible “seniors’ cruise,” Nancy bumps into Tessa’s husband. He tells her — at length — the story of his marriage to Tessa, but Nancy knows that his story is a tissue of lies. She feels that she herself is lying by not protesting. The story ends, mysteriously, with a dream: a shared understanding about what women know, but force themselves not to know, in order to live a happy life. The story works wonderfully, with the fractured, nonlinear narrative, and the close examination of what “powers” may mean in a life.
“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” are all about the same character, Juliet. In the first, she is a studious young teacher who meets a man on a train and falls in love with him. Later, she impulsively goes to visit him in British Columbia where he is a fisherman, arriving accidentally the day of his wife’s wake. In “Soon,” Juliet is a young mother, home with her parents, showing off her baby, Penelope. In “Silence,” Juliet is a late middle-aged widow whose daughter has cut off relations with her mother. It appears that the independence and sturdy logic we admired in the younger Juliet have alienated Penelope, who has gone in search of the spiritual things she never had at home. One of the really interesting things about this trilogy is that it doesn’t feel like a novel. Each story feels complete and separate, spacious in its own right. They resonate with each other, but are unforced.
There were a couple of stories that felt more heavy-handed to me. The title story is about Carla, who wants to run away from her emotionally abusive husband and is aided to do so by a neighbor. Eventually, however, she can’t imagine her life without him and she’s drawn back home. Her miserable adventure is echoed by a runaway goat, Flora, who is literally the scapegoat in the picture. I mean, this story would teach well, but when the symbolism is this obvious, I find it a little intrusive. I was also almost unable to read “Tricks,” which uses a literally Shakespearean case of mistaken identity as the hinge of the plot. I cannot tell you how I loathe plots that turn on simple misunderstandings (which is why I can’t bear Romeo and Juliet.) However, it’s important to note that these two stories are so jarring in Munro’s work because she usually works with such dogged, almost muted realism. At the beginning of this review, I said I like weird stories. Well, clairvoyance, a fateful goat returning at exactly the right moment, and a case of a deaf-mute twin ought to please me, oughtn’t they? Munro is doing this on purpose, which she proves by calling her story “Tricks.” It’s not the strange Shakespearean coincidence that counts, nor the clairvoyance. It’s the human reaction: the betrayal, the lie, the cowardice, or — on the other hand — the faithful friendship, the enduring love.
If you haven’t read Munro, do. I think you could start anywhere; I started with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and this is the fourth book I’ve read of hers. But don’t miss her.