By Alice MunroKnopf
In the myth-inflected world of Alice Munro's recent fiction, when a daughter disappears, the mother's crops are not left to wither as she searches. Instead the mother is more likely to stay put and now, with more time on her hands, actually begin a garden at long last, the plants taking hold rather nicely, though they be, to a large extent, forget-me-nots, bittersweet, or rue. Great literature of the past two centuries has sentimentalized politics, crime, nature, and madness, but seldom the family, and the wrenching incompatibility of a woman's professional or artistic expression with her familial commitments has made its way into the most undidactic of literary minds. It has appeared, to powerful and unexpected effect, in much of Munro's work, especially her most recent collection, Runaway. In "Silence" a mother who has come late to her vocation (in one of several apparent stand-ins for literary work, she is a local talk-show host with renowned powers of sympathy), and whose daughter has fled to some kind of alternative spiritual retreat, punishing her mother with discontinued contact, begins a life of solitude and herb-growing. That same mother's parents, in a kind of back-story titled "Soon," happily take up berry and vegetable farming after their daughter has left home. Ambivalent parenting abounds. In "Trespasses" a discontented mother's psychological preoccupation contributes to the accidental death of her young daughter. In "Passion" a young wife with "pouches of boredom" at her mouth and a "bitter tinkle of a laugh" explains to her in-laws, "I don't have any appetite anyway, what with the heat and the joys of motherhood," and then promptly lights up a cigarette. "Families were like a poison in your blood," a character in the collection's title story thinks.
There are no happy endings here, but neither are these tales tragedies. They are constructions of calm perplexity, coolly observed human mysteries. One can feel the suspense, poolside, as well as any reader of The Da Vinci Code; one can cast a quick eye toward one's nine-year-old on the high dive and get back to the exact sentence where one left off. The thrilling unexpectedness of real life, which Munro rightly insists on, will in her hands keep a reader glued—even if that reader is torn by the very conflicts (work to do, kid on the high dive) dramatized therein. "This is the kind of fond but exasperated mother-talk she finds it easy to slip into," Munro writes in "Silence." Though they may close with the sleepy loose ends of secrets and dreams, these stories, like life as it is recalled more than as it is lived, move forward with speed and excitement: there are train, boat, and car wrecks; weddings and affairs; the ever present whiff of suicide. They are determinedly full of the marks of change—cultural and emotional—upon individuals who are as startled by them as any reader. A historian friend of mine recently said, "I like Alice Munro's work because she captures so well those surprising moments of life that you never knew were possible, like suddenly finding yourself in a cornfield with your pants around your ankles."
Munro's interest in life's incongruous phases and fragments has given her stories their distinctive shape. Decades collide, intersect, are placed side by side in a charged and vibrating conversation. (Munro has said she sees stories architecturally, as a house whose various rooms one can roam in and out of, forgoing any prescribed order; this surely accounts for the nonlinear aspect of so many of her narratives. That memory and passion re-order a life and cause events to fall meaningfully out of sequence in the mind often seems to be Munro's point.) Four of the stories here are essentially two novellas composed of linked parts, carrying their characters from youth to late middle age. (There is less back and forth between time periods in these novellas than there usually is in Munro.) This is a successful length for Munro, because it allows her, by means of tableaux, to use time deeply and extendedly as both tool and subject.
The story for the ages here, however, is surely the title one, with its multiple runaways, its ghostly gothic moments, and its exploration of erotic love—all narrative ingredients Munro has made her own. Carla, with the help of a friend, runs away from her increasingly disturbed and hostile husband. She previously ran away with him, leaving her family—"their photo albums, their vacations, their Cuisinart, their powder room, their walk-in closets, their underground lawn-sprinkling system"—for a more "authentic" life. So much for the comforts of authenticity. Halfway to her destination of Toronto, however, "the strange and terrible thing coming clear to her" is that she cannot imagine life without her husband. As she flees, he persistently "[keeps] his place in her life … what would she put in his place?" She is drawn helplessly (that is, erotically) back, compromised by grief and uncertainty, willing to pay whatever violent price is required to keep her marriage—and in Munro it is always a little violent. The loss of Carla's pet goat—she imagines, which is to say understands (there is no difference for Munro's female characters), that her husband has punished her by killing it—is an echo of the many violent visions that Munro's wives have of the men they've chosen, and of men in general. In "Open Secrets" (1994) a man spraying schoolgirls with a hose (Munro's work is interested in men with menacing water, especially hoses; one or two of them appear in the current collection) is envisioned by the story to be a murderer. His is a crime his wife has had to accept—though, like the goat's death in "Runaway," there is a "brief and barbaric and necessary act" reconsecrating the marriage. In this new collection the story "Powers" concludes with the incarceration of a woman by her husband, after her psychic powers dwindle and can no longer satisfactorily pay the bills. The psychic wife knows what the husband is up to—or so the story, with its own clairvoyance, imagines. But she remains passive before her fate.
In Munro's world wives glimpse the cold wickedness of their men but must devise the psychological ceremony that allows them to set that glimpse aside. It is too late in their lives for them to do otherwise. Only the very young have the emotional luxury of successfully fleeing. For a young person, a pristine heart untainted by the more damaging forms of forgiveness is still in charge. In "Baptizing," from Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Munro wrote eloquently of two young lovers, one of whom has almost drowned the other (men and water again: in Ovid water fuses a couple's sexuality; in Munro it distinguishes and separates).
If we had been older we would certainly have hung on, haggled over the price of reconciliation, explained and justified and perhaps forgiven, and carried this into the future with us, but as it was we were close enough to childhood to believe in the absolute seriousness and finality of some fights, unforgivability of some blows. We had seen in each other what we could not bear, and we had no idea that people do see that, and go on, and hate and fight and try to kill each other, various ways, then love some more.
Therein lies part of the contradiction of feeling coursing through so much of Munro's work, which she expresses best three paragraphs later in that same early story.
Unconnected to the life of love, uncolored by love, the world resumes its own, its natural and callous importance. This is first a blow, then an odd consolation. And already I felt my old self—my old devious, ironic, isolated self—beginning to breathe again and stretch and settle, though all around it my body clung cracked and bewildered, in the stupid pain of loss.
The artistic self—devious, ironic, isolated—resides at odds with the tender lover self in the same finely riven person. Munro is hardly the first writer to worry this incompatibility; Henry James, in his very different way, devoted a lifetime to it and, like Munro, was often interested in placing that theme in ghost stories of both the natural and the supernatural kind. But she is one of the most explicit in noting its obscenity, its terribleness as well as its almost comedic unsolvability. Perhaps owing partly to this, her writing never loses its juice, never goes brittle; it also never equivocates or blinks, but simply lets observations speak for themselves. In fiction real turmoil is made artificial turmoil, only to seem real again; this is literary realism's wish, and one of Munro's compelling accomplishments.
"Seduction may be baneful," Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Seduction and Betrayal, "even tragic, but the seducer at his work is essentially comic." Munro's romantically game women seem to understand this even as girls, and it may be the thing that gives them, especially in this collection, their fearlessness and dignity and resilience, also their outwardly sleepwalking, straight-man quality. How else to explain the sexual situations they so easily wander into? Juliet, in "Chance," quickly takes up with an older, married man she meets on a train, pursuing him to Whale Bay, on the British Columbian coast, although she has learned almost nothing about him and he doesn't even know her last name. In "Passion," Grace, cued by little except a notion that romance should involve impulsiveness, abandons her fiancé to take up for an afternoon with his alcoholic older brother, whom she has just met. All the women here are attempted runaways of some sort, and they seem to feel that the situation they run toward harbors more truth and hope than the difficult daily world they run from, though the story itself will not judge. Munro's women are unforensic in their knowledge—perceptive guessers, quiet visionaries, fortuitous survivors. And the stories are uninsistent in their stance. It has been said that erotic love, like certain religions, seems to contain the meaning of life without actually disclosing it, and Munro's narratives of this—though they may, in a paragraph here or there, advocate for mystery—in general back off from faith or argument of any kind. Munro's world, with its small violent corners, is a revelation of a specific element of human experience: the impossibility of life without tedium, surprise, or paradox. There seems nothing missing in this yet again brilliant collection. If the book's last words, regarding powers beginning "to crumble and darken tenderly into something like soot and soft ash," betray any authorial worry, the beauty of the line gives the lie to it. Someone writing at this level well into her seventies, outliving the female friends to whose memory the book is dedicated and who must have been part of its inspiration, is a literary inspiration herself.
But if there is anything missing, it may be "Hired Girl" and "Fathers"—two haunting stories that were published in The New Yorker some time ago but have yet to appear in a collection. Maybe even more stories are lying in wait. Such first-rate abundance is an astonishment in any lifetime, let alone that of a middle-class mother, and is—to rework Faulkner's quip regarding Keats—worth any number of young daughters. Though, of course, for the writer it is always more complicated than that. For the reader, however, it is a lovely and simple matter of greed and joy.