Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Runaway by Alice Munro

Even the man in charge of learning in that place did not believe that learning had to do with life. He thought that what she had done was crazy, as everyone else did.

Except Mrs. Travers, who had been sent to business college, instead of a real college, in order to make herself useful, and who now wished like anything, she said, that she had crammed her mind first with what was useless.

Last year, I read my first Munro, Dear Life, and I liked it. It even made a good showing in my top 10 last year. But, as much as I liked some of the stories in it, I was left, a little, wondering what the big deal was. But Runaway, this was something else. I sort of wish I’d read it first, but...

All of the stories here involve women who, in various ways, are running from something. While that might seem a little on the nose, given the title of the collection, one thing that came to mind while thinking about what I’d write here was the great variety of things that exist, from which to run: plans that are not your own, lovers you no longer love, a life that is not what you expected, a rampaging sheep. Lots of things.

And while I wouldn’t exactly say that Munro varies her actual writing style a great deal throughout this collection, the voices of her characters, especially her protagonists are very distinct. There’s a cycle of stories in here, covering a girl, Juliet, as she moves from twenty-something Classics major to lonely widow which, to be honest, made me feel a little like I was entering an existential crisis. The title story, on the other hand, is much more optimistic and ambiguous, with small-riding-school-owning Carla doing the classic “what I wanted was right here all along”, but not in the classic way.

In fact, I want to talk for a moment about how brilliantly Munro constructs her stories. On paper, they sound like typical MFA fare--people finding themselves, having internal crises, etc--but in actuality, Munro starts with simple, almost cliche setups and then lets her dogged devotion to character--it is very hard to find anything out of character in these stories--take over and lead the whatever ending makes sense. In Runaway, for example, there are feints toward a divorce story, a lesbian affair, a country-girl-in-the-city narrative, a blackmail potboiler, and then Munro pulls back and draws those threads into something more special and unpredictable.

The final story in the collection, Powers, even dabbles in a little bit of the supernatural before turning a story about little white lies into a decade spanning epic (of sorts--it is only 50 pages long). It’s a masterful piece that encapsulates everything Munro does in this collection. There’s not a dud in the bunch.

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