The last collection of Munro's stories that I read Dear Life, was full of terrific moments but lacked a sense of finish or completeness. Some of it was strangely experimental, whatever that means for Munro--perhaps suggestive or impressionistic. But perhaps that's only true in the context of Munro's other work, like the collection Runaway, in which each story is so perfectly realized and self-contained that it seems like a coup against the plainness of the lives about which Munro writes. Each story in Runaway is like a little novel in itself.
Munro's big theme is the ways that men terrorize women. Blink and you'll miss it; she writes so calmly about such ordinary people that you might well not notice the parallels. The first and title story is more explicit than most: Carla, a young woman who rejected her parents in order to marry her Bohemian husband, has slowly discovered that he is monstrously cruel. A neighbor, an older woman whose poet husband has just died, is determined to help her run away, and sets her up with friends in Toronto. Carla's story neatly parallels that of her goat Flora, who has gone missing. (One of my favorite sentences in the whole collection is: "Clark posted a Lost Goat notice on the Web.") Carla gets cold feet, and her husband shows up at Sylvia's door to shout at her, when Flora appears out of the mist:
She did not sleep, thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical. She even wondered if, possibly, Leon could have had something to do with it. if she was a poet she would write a poem about something like this. But in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon.
It seems almost too literary, and it is. We find out at the end of the story that the neat, poetic ending is not really the ending at all, and what really happened was less coincidental and more shocking. I won't spoil it, but I was floored by how Munro deftly plays into our expectations of plot and symbolism, and then rebukes them. Life is not a story, she says, cruelty is not always redeemed by beauty or by art.
I could write similarly about every story in the collection. Three of them are about a woman, Juliet, who tries to forge a life in the furthest reaches of British Columbia with a man she meets on a train. The stories might as well be about different people, for the thinness of their connecting threads, but something about linking them together makes each feel more profound. I particularly liked a Munrovian dash of dark humor in the first, "Chance," in which Juliet is unable to flush her menstrual blood down the train toilet that has just stopped because it hit a suicide on the tracks. Later, she overhears a conversation:
The woman talking to her said softly, "That's what she said. Full of blood. So it must have splashed in when the train went over--"
"Don't say it."
Juliet had rejected the man's advances earlier, before he hopped off the train and killed himself. The menstrual blood is symbolically complex, suggesting a kind of feminine guilt for not giving into the sad demands of male sexuality. But beyond that it's really funny--and it's not the first time that Munro has used menstruation for that kind of bleak joke.
Other stories tell about a provincial woman reputed to be psychic; a girl who is stalked by a woman who believes her to be a child she once gave up for adoption; a woman whose brief fling with an alcoholic precedes his death in a car accident. Each one is really something.