Munro revisits tales of lives and loves lived in 'Runaway'
Alan Hollinghurst, Guardian News Service/London
Runaway Alice Munro Chatto & Windus 335pp
Alice Munro is now in her mid-70s, and her gaze, always marvelously quick and deep, searches back over longer distances.
Almost all the stories in her new book contain gaps and jumps in time, from a few months to 40 years; in two of them, an intense episode in a young woman's life is remembered decades later, with humor and astonishment. The effect in each case is of a life revealed, not a life explained, and certainly not a life explained away.
There is nothing therapeutic about these visits to the past, and nothing sentimental. As she says of Nancy, the central figure in the great last story, Powers, "what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it".
Munro's tone can be bracingly dry. She has no time for those implausible feats of memory often enacted by fictional protagonists; she simply tells us, with unhesitating naturalness, about her characters' early lives, including many things which they themselves will later remember differently, if at all. From time to time she exercises her omniscience with a bleak flash forward, a quietly desolating summary.
The story Silence ends: "She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort."
Powers is the longest and most fractured of the stories. Its first section is part of Nancy's diary for the spring of 1927. It is a little masterpiece of impersonation, an uncanny inhabiting of the mind of a meddling, egotistical girl and of a distinct historical period.
The long range of Munro's stories is only made possible by her apparently effortless possession of decade beyond decade of the past, her technique being the opposite of so much information- bolstered fiction of the present: she knows that life in the past was unhampered by any sense of its future quaintness, so she doesn't explain. She gives us a past as unselfconscious as today.
Nancy's story will involve marriage to a doctor she has played an irresponsible April Fool's trick on, and feels too embarrassed to turn down. She has a friend called Tessa, a physically stunted girl with the gift of clairvoyance. In Munro's fictional world, where every life is marked and decided by accidents and the unforeseen, this prophetic power has an especial interest.
The later parts of Powers are in the third person. We jump forward to 1969, when Nancy goes to visit Tessa in an old- fashioned mental home. Tessa had married, against Nancy's cruel but shrewd injunctions, a man who wanted to exploit her gift for commercial ends. In the long penultimate section Nancy, widowed, elderly, in Vancouver after a ghastly geriatric cruise, bumps into Tessa's husband, and hears his own account of their marriage -- an account she soon sees is largely made up of lies. She feels she lies herself in not protesting at it. The story closes, very boldly, and very mysteriously, with a dream.
The sweep of the thing, the unfolding picture of the unforeseen life, the interlocking strangeness and ordinariness, the unraveling narrative of Nancy's own consciousness, together make a deep impression.
Three of the stories are about the same character -- a technique Munro explored at book-length in The Beggar Maid 27 years ago. We meet Juliet first as a studious young teacher, then as a young mother visiting her elderly parents, and finally as a late middle-aged woman sundered from her own grown-up daughter. It turns out that the independence and rationalism we have admired in Juliet have alienated her child, who has left in search of the spiritual things she never had at home.
Munro's stories have always felt exceptionally capacious; they have the scope of novels, though without any awkward sense of speeding up or boiling down. They are truly stories, and when they are linked, as Juliet's stories are, they create not a simulacrum of a novel but a series of resonating episodes, still subject to the discipline and selectivity of the short-story form. It's almost impossible to describe their unforced exactness, their unrushed economy.
A couple of the stories here make use of plot devices which may leave the reader mildly dissatisfied; trustingly absorbed in the narrative, we find ourselves unexpectedly called on to admire a trick.
In Runaway, the pet goat kept by a couple with a foundering marriage carries enough symbolic weight before its disappearance and its return, springing out of the fog like an apparition at the story's climactic moment; that return is then itself made the subject of a clever narrative twist (who knows? And who knows who knows?).
We gasp and shake our heads, but Munro's best effects are not like that -- indeed are not "effects" at all. In Tricks, Robin, a young nurse who goes off by herself each year to see a Shakespeare play at Stratford, Ontario, is caught up in, and caught out by a bit of plotting as artificial as a Shakespearean comedy.
What if, Munro seems to say, the romantic susceptibilities of an inexperienced young woman were to be exposed to the comic doublings of a Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors? And what if the audience too were to be taken in by the mistaken identity of the lover? And the confusion sorted out, not at the end of the evening, but a whole adult lifetime later...?
It is, of course, a tribute to the profound lifelikeness of Munro's work that one should find such games intrusive. And in fact, the real interest of both these stories lies more in the portrayal of the characters themselves, and their relationships.
Robin is a distinct Munro type, capable, with private, perhaps unrealizable ambitions, and a sense of not wholly belonging in the well-trodden plot of provincial life. Her marveling, passive surrender to the man who picks her up, her heightened, tactile awareness of every detail in their encounter, is the sort of thing Munro does breathtakingly well. In Runaway, what is best is the bond between the wife, Carla, sturdy, physical, emotionally unexplored, and Sylvia, the widow whom she helps and who expresses her crush on her by encouraging her to leave her husband.
Munro has a genius for evoking the particular and peculiar atmosphere of relationships, their unspoken pressures and expectations.
In Passion -- one of the 40-year flashback stories -- the young Grace finds herself courted by a nice boy called Maury. "When we are married, he would say, and instead of questioning or contradicting him, Grace would listen curiously." But a minor accident flings her together with Maury's half-brother Neil, an alcoholic doctor, who takes her off in his car for a ride into thrillingly new intimations -- not only of her own sexuality but of the desolate hopelessness of Neil's inner world. Munro has never made a fuss about sex, but a deep understanding of it is integral, in different ways, to each of these stories. Passion must rate among the finest things she has done.
"Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say -- she did say -- that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang -- acquiescence simply rippled through her, the rights of those left behind were smoothly canceled.
"Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed, though there was a variation in the parts of it she dwelt on.
"And even in some of those details she must have been wrong".
Alan Hollinghurst's Booker-winning novel The Line of Beauty is published by Picador.