by Alice Munro

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-7791-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 335

Buy at Powell's Books

I came to this short story collection somewhat cold, out of a desire to sample a broader variety of mainstream fiction. Alice Munro is far outside the range of writers I normally read, but she was recommended by Matthew Cheney in his article "Literary Fiction for People Who Hate Literary Fiction" in Emerald City #124. Most of the stories in this collection were originally published in The New Yorker.

The stories in Runaway are a very different experience than the short fiction I normally read in SF magazines, and setting is the least of the differences. The best single word I can find for my primary impression is "subtle." The stories here don't telegraph either a point or a twist; instead, if there is a twist, one becomes slowly aware that the twist of the story has happened only after it's already past. The characters often surprised me, often went off in directions I didn't anticipate. Sometimes they went off in directions I thought were stupid and self-destructive, but even that is subtle. I rarely felt that solid sensation of getting to the bottom of a character or a motive that I so often feel from other short fiction. Munro's characters often remain complicated puzzles even at the end of the story.

Another common theme in this collection is impulsive emotion combined with a feeling of being lost and without roots. The main characters often change their lives sharply and abruptly, or suddenly discover a well of emotion that they weren't aware existed. But the change doesn't bring sudden revelation and a feeling of being in the right place so much as an abrupt change and a different set of sensations. Munro's characters rarely simplify themselves.

All of the stories are lucid and vivid, but not all of the characters are likeable. The surface theme of running away is repeated throughout, and frequently the running away isn't for the better and isn't very admirable. This isn't an uplifting collection. It's thought-provoking, often sad, and predominately wistful, like transient glimpses of a deeper satisfying world that ordinary people can't hold on to.

"Runaway": Carla lives in the country with her husband and a pet goat where they take tourists on trail rides. Her happiness is challenged by a difficult and confrontational husband, an odd relationship with her neighbor Sylvia, and the festering of a nasty dishonesty. The story slowly builds a picture of her trapped in a bad marriage, unhappiness building into desperation until she decides to just flee. But none of this works out the way that one would expect, and the ending is both deeply unsatisfying and bizarrely real, more real in some ways than the story of a woman finally making her escape. It's a good introduction to the book: emotions twist and turn on themselves, characters who seem the heroes suddenly show flaws, and there are tantalizing layers (like the sexual subtext between Carla and Sylvia) that come and go and are hard to capture. I can't say that I liked the story, but it's a peculiarly deep human tragedy. (5)

"Chance": This was my favorite story of the book, and probably not coincidentally the most traditionally romantic. Juliet is a classics student who, travelling to a private school in British Columbia for a teaching job, meets a man on the train and falls into an unlikely romance before either she or the reader realizes what's happening. Munro's way of making the reader feel like they're a page or two behind the story but never quite losing the emotional thread is used to great effect here. I loved the awkwardness of the social interactions, Juliet's desire to be alone, and the way Munro handles the cultural concerns of a woman in 1965. I loved the unconventional ending, a hidden path out of an apparently unsolvable dilemma that surprised and pleased me a great deal, except that the next two stories reveal that Munro didn't intend the ending I read at all. That was rather disappointing and undermined the story a great deal for me. (7)

"Soon": This story follows on from "Chance," telling the story of Juliet returning home to visit her parents some time after the events of the framing story (not the flashback) in "Chance." It's another painfully accurate observation of something that I'm not sure I wanted to watch. Munro does an excellent job capturing the weirdness of a strained relationship with parents, attempts to navigate their weirdness when no one quite knows how to communicate clearly, and the hard decisions between sticking with one's own strongly-held opinions in the abstract and lying to make one's parents happy. This was another story that I'm not sure I liked, but which I found very perceptive. (6)

"Silence": Here Munro goes beyond uncomfortable into outright painful, still following Juliet and now telling the story of her troubled relationship with her daughter. After following Juliet through several stories and developing some fondness for her, it was hard to read the pain here, and infuriating to see what religion does, indirectly, to her life. Desperately desired happy endings rarely happen in Munro's story. By the end of this one, I was furious, and not in a good mood to try to read a deeper psychological observation about what factors may be at work between Juliet and Penelope. This story is about runaways at their most selfish and brutal, and Munro tells it with a devastating calm and accurate portrayal of a slow, creeping despair. Well-written, but infuriating and blackly depressing in turn. (5)

"Passion": Here is another good example of emotional twists and shocks that one only notices a page or two later in hindsight. The framing story here, of a return to a place from a much younger period of one's life, is perfect for this story, with its mingled sense of embarassment, loss, and fascination with past sins and discomfort. The story is a balancing act between normalcy and a deeply destructive but oddly compelling abnormality, about passion not as a prelude but as a release of a sort of inner destructiveness or escape from the expected. This is the story that I turned over and pondered the most after reading. I think it says some profound things in very subtle ways, not as a presentation of solutions, but as pure observation of what people do. It doesn't let you go at the end of the story; there's no catharsis here, which I think is part of why it's profound (but also uncomfortable). (6)

"Trespasses": This was my second favorite story of the book, mostly because it features a precocious child and parents who treat their child like she's an adult capable of understanding the world. It tells the story of the odd friendship between Lauren (the young girl) and a woman named Delphine who works at the local hotel, and the effect that relationship has on an old family secret. The plot itself wasn't the best part of the story (although the conclusion is oddly haunting), but I loved reading about Lauren. It says something about the whole book that each time Munro gives me a character who doesn't drive me away, the story stands out in my memory, but that it happens so rarely. Runaway is filled with flawed and troubled characters who aren't as easy as Lauren to love. (7)

"Tricks": Here is a Munro take on an old romantic notion: the chance meeting, for one evening, and then an arranged rendezvous much later that takes on layers of suspense and expectation. Of course, it has a very Munro twist, undermining the romance and replacing it with something more realistic, more fraught, and harder to live with. More would give away the ending, which here is particularly vulnerable. (6)

"Powers": This is the nastiest story of the book and my least favorite. It's told from multiple points of view, but largely from the perspective of a self-absorbed woman who knows, and shows off to a friend, a neighborhood woman with psychic powers. This has wide-ranging and particularly nasty consequences, leading to the ugliest abuse of friendship of this book and a fair bit of lying and self-deception. I wanted to like the main character, who occasionally pulls it together enough to try to do the right thing, but she keeps falling back into her personal justifications while other people are hurt. Nasty people in dreadful, depressing lives, with only a few sparks of abused joy. (4)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-01-17

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