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.