Characterization: “…he only caught her, wound his arms around her, held her so tightly, with such continual, changing pressures that it seemed more than two arms were needed, that she was surrounded by him, his body strong and light, demanding and renouncing all at once, as if he was telling her she was wrong to give up on him, everything was possible, but then again that she was not wrong, he meant to stamp himself on her and go.”
Alice Munro, I’m in love. It started with The Beggar Maid, which I have yet to pay homage to on this site in my unpardonable sloth. Now Runaway. I’d considered covering only one story in this 2004 collection–the title story–and then realized how charmingly delectable 80% of it is. And for short story collections, which more often than not oscillate between the simultaneously glorious and frustrating extremes of oh-god-this-touched-my-soul and what-was-the-point-there-was-no-pay-off, that’s a reason to stand and applaud. If anyone is capable of unleashing this kind of literary unicorn on the world, it’s the undisputed queen of short fiction herself, Ms. Munro who, at the crisp age of 82, has not let up the reigns on her craft (see Dear Life: Stories, whose integrity I cannot attest to since I haven’t read it yet. It’s one of 100+ other books on my Goodreads to-read shelf vying for my attention).
I wouldn’t describe Runaway as stylistically “innovative.” Munro is a a straightforward storyteller, who doesn’t much toy with point of view or plot. Of Runaway, NY Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, “…they feel like self-conscious, overworked tales, relying on awkwardly withheld secrets and O’Henryesque twists to create narrative suspense.” There’s some truth in this, but then, if you like “O’Henryesque twists,” it’ not upsetting. I found myself gleefully anticipating any twists. Though it may be a cheap trick, it’s far from all Munro gives us. Runaway’s narratives amble along, tiptoeing around crumbling relationships and strained interactions, all the while digging cavernous emotional ditches that readers fall into and don’t often realize the depth of until they’re clawing their way to the end.
Yes, Munro’s protagonists are almost always aged females, looking back on lives that are riddled with loss, loneliness and a whole host of other quiet sorrows, but Munro stacks layer upon layer, managing to fully characterize both place and people within the confines of the short form. It’s for this reason I think readers new to the form should start with a Munro collection. She writes as though she were writing a novel, commanding the short form to adapt to her often long-winded, introspective style. Maybe one of the many reasons so many writers write novels is because the novel is rather boundless–lengthwise, time-wise, there’s a careful unwinding of plot and characters through pages of ornamental description or chapter-ending cliffhangers. It makes you wonder, what form is more challenging to the writer? I think there’s a valid argument for either, but one thing I struggled with in my short fiction class was structure. It seems there was always more to say, too much to elaborate on. How do you truncate your ideas without obscuring them?
The expression “less is more” applies to short fiction perhaps better than any other cliché I can think of, but it’s also easier to start with more ( which makes me wonder how many short stories started out short and then just became a novel…). My professor suggested loading up on details, letting the structure burst at the seams, and then attacking the piece later with a merciless editor’s eye, axing those details that aren’t essential. In some ways, this is what makes short fiction seem more challenging than writing a novel. A novel is a forgiving, accommodating thing. Short fiction is a martinet, whipping a writer’s self-indulgent tendencies into shape. Which is why Munro should be so highly appreciated–she’s not a slave to the form. In the face of limitations, Munro pushes against short fiction’s rigid walls, accomplishing so much in so few pages.
“Few,” however, is a relative term. There are 8 stories in Runaway and each are around 40+ pages. So if you don’t feel up to the task of reading them all, for fear of the aforementioned highs and lows, know that the lows aren’t that low, and that these are my favorites: “Runaway” was the highlight for me, the single, 45-page reason to even pick up this collection, if all you’re looking for is one reason. It’s about a woman who feels trapped in her marriage. Straightforward but beautifully portrayed through metaphor. The three stories that follow, “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” are a set, each representing cherry-picked points in one woman’s life. “Chance” is a first-time-we-met love story, while “Soon” and “Silence” focus more on family relationships, particularly mother/daughter. “Soon” and “Silence” aren’t the most compelling in the collection, they seem to meander more than others, but I did become invested in the characters and was curious how their lives evolved. I give a big thumbs up to “Passion.” This post’s opening quote is from this story, about a woman who spends Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s alcoholic brother. And finally “Tricks,” another sort-of romance piece, that in the end definitely lives up to its name.