Monday, April 09, 2007

Runaway by Alice Munro

I want to talk to you today about one of the very best authors of the last fifty years, and one of the best short-story writers of all time. Her name is Alice Munro, and today I will talk about her 2004 collection of short stories, Runaway. Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Magaret Atwood, three friends, three Canadians (although Shields was born in the U.S.), three great writers. Shields died in 2003 at sixty-eight, Atwood is sixty-seven and still writing like a house afire, Munro is seventy-five and has announced that she has published her last collection of stories. Marvelous to me that Canada produced three such incredible authors in that short span of time. We readers should treasure all three both for their writing and for the ways they lived their lives.

I have told you before of my lifelong aversion to short fiction, but I think finally I have overcome it. Or should I say that Grace Paley, Shields, and Alice Munro have bulldozed it. This collection has only eight stories in it, and I came away from these stories feeling that I had read not short stories, but parts of novels. It seems that Munro must have thought through, mind-written, whole novels about some of these characters, and then decided to give her readers only some of the chapters. If she could do a good job with the few scenes she let the reader in on, then the reader could fill in the interstices, could become an accomplice in writing the novel.

One reviewer said that this book is so good that he didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to quote from it, that neither quoting nor synopsis could do it justice; the only way to do it justice is to read it, so he would simply repeat that injunction. Read Munro! Read Munro! I understand the feeling, and yet while I will certainly resist the temptation to synopsize, I am going to try to give you a few themes, a few passages, hoping to incite you to read the whole book.

Like the other great short story writers I mentioned above, Munro insists on writing about, illuminating the lives of, what we would think of as quite ordinary people, showing us that their inner lives are certainly as rich as the lives of the rich and famous, and that their existential crises are every bit as real. Several of the stories in this little volume are about girls/women who run away—run away from the small towns they have been raised in, from the boyfriends who threaten to smother them in the over-seriousness they manifest in their own lives, from the parents who love them too much or too little. The title story is about a young woman who enlists the help of an older woman in running away from her husband. She is helping the older woman whose husband is invalided to clean and straighten her house when quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, the younger woman moves from what appear to be soundless howls to outright howls and hysteria. She can’t stand it anymore, she wails. It turns out that what she can’t stand anymore is her husband.

He was mad at her all the time. He acted as if he hated her. There was nothing she could do right, there was nothing she could say. Living with him was driving her crazy. Sometimes she thought she already was crazy. Sometimes she thought he was.

The young woman is surprised, stunned at the ease with which the older woman is able to help her escape—a bus-ticket to Toronto, a bit of money to tide her over, a plan that spills out as if it had been in the making for sometime. Once on the bus, she has to begin to think what she is running to, what she is running from, what will become of the people and animals she has left behind.

Another of the runaways in this book is a girl from a small town, odd among the inhabitants because she is bright, studies math and foreign languages, and at first opportunity runs off to college.

Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary—and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of feeling surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And usually, she let them.

Once Juliet has run away, she returns home infrequently and for short, uncomfortable visits. This young woman who studies Greek and Latin is the primary figure in two of the stories in this volume. In the first as the runaway who returns home with an infant girl, and although now living with the father of her child, not officially married. She is surprised to discover that her liberal, teacher father and her ailing mother are more shocked than they let on about her unmarried state—that it has even caused her father to resign his teaching post. And she finds herself running again, now back to the relative safety of her man and her adopted coastal home. How could she guess that twenty years later her own daughter would run away, not from a conservative and religious household and town, but, instead, towards a spiritual life that she has perhaps been denied by her atheistic mother. What is freedom to some may be bondage to others.

Finally, let me talk briefly about the middle story in this volume, “Passion.” This, too, involves a kind of runaway. Here the heroine, Grace, is from a very small town, raised by an aunt and uncle who always seem in some ways strangers to her. Following her senior year in high school, she gets the opportunity to go to a resort town and work through the summer as a waitress. There, she meets a family with much more money than any she has known and falls in love with the mother, Mrs. Travers, just as the young son of the family is falling in love with her, indeed, plans to marry her. There are twists and turns of running away in this story that I will only hint at, but let me give you something of the flavor of the young woman as she goes on her first date with the wealthy son.

He did take her to the movies. They saw Father of the Bride. Grace hated it. She hated girls like Elizabeth Taylor in that movie, she hated spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but that they wheedle and demand. Maury said that it was only supposed to be a comedy, but she said that was not the point. She could not make clear what the point was. Anybody would think that it was because she worked as a waitress and was too poor to go to college, and that if she wanted anything like that kind of wedding she would have to spend years saving up to pay for it herself. (Maury did think this, and was stricken with respect for her, almost with reverence.)
She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men—people, everybody—thought they should be liked. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.

Certainly, these few passages do not do justice to the book, so I must end with the same injunction as the New York Times Book Review critic, Read Munro! Read Munro!

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