The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
Runaway  by Alice Munro.
by Alice Munro

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Storytellers usually delight in decisive heroes.  But author Alice
Munro has made her mark as a connoisseur of indecisive
protagonists. Instead of Julien Sorel, who rises from poverty to
conquer high society in Stendhal’s
The Red and the Black, instead of
Captain Ahab who goes fishing but will settle
for nothing smaller than
Moby Dick, Munro
presents us with characters who have second
thoughts, then third thoughts, then second
thoughts on their third thoughts.  They are
focused on what, in the popular parlance, is
called “processing.”

“It wasn't possible to tell the whole truth
because she couldn't get it straight herself,”
writes Munro of a typical protagonist in the
story “Trespasses.”  “She couldn’t explain
what she had wanted, right up to the point
of not wanting it at all.”  In the title story to
the collection
Runaway, a woman decides suddenly that she wants
to abandon her husband, but on the bus out of town she changes her
mind, forces the driver to let her off and calls her spouse to have
him pick her up.  Her husband, meanwhile, is planning to blackmail
a neighbor, but then changes his mind just as quickly as his wife has
done.  Let others worry about the purpose-driven life or the five-
year plan;  Munro is our leading chronicler of the irresolute, our
poet of the desultory.  

This sensitivity to the changeable imparts a sense of heady realism
to Munro’s accounts.  One of the most dispiriting trends in
contemporary storytelling—especially on TV and at the movies—is
the predictability with which plots move toward their expected
resolution.   An unabashedly likeable hero or heroine overcomes the
usual obstacles, only to emerge triumphant in the final scene, maybe
with time for a final laugh or tear before the curtain comes down.  
Munro will have none of this, and the truest thing one could say of
her stories is that you can never anticipate how they will end,
because the resolutions are more like those you encounter in the
world than on the page or screen.  Often that means matters remain
unresolved.  The processing continues, off-stage, after our
involvement in the story concludes.

If Munro’s characters suffer from indecision, they are remarkably
patient when it comes to brooding over the past. Several stories in
Runaway hinge on events that characters continue to obsess over
decades after the fact.  In “Tricks,” Robin meets a man from
Montenegro and they spend a single day together, before
exchanging kisses and bidding farewells—and decades later she is
still wondering about what might have been.  In the longest story,
the novella “Powers” which concludes the collection, Nancy frets
about a relationship between her husband’s cousin and a former
classmate in the 1920s, and she is still fretting in the 1970s.  In other
stories, adoptions, deaths and adult children who have moved away
serve as recurring causes of anxiety and—yes!—second-guessing.  

Munro is a Canadian writer both by birth and orientation—many of
her tales are set in her native Ontario, where she was born in 1931.  
But most readers will associate her even more closely with
The New
, where the majority of the stories in Runaway originally
appeared.   In many ways, she is the current-day author most
representative of that magazine’s “personal vignette” style of realist
fiction, a worthy follower in the keystrokes of Cheever, Capote,
Salinger and others.   How odd that a periodical named for the most
fast-paced and teeming city in the land should stand out for its
nuanced tales of suburbia, small towns and country life!   But this is
Munro’s forte, and she is at her best when extracting the hidden
drama from lives led outside the glare of neon lights.

Munro also knows when to pull back, when to leave things unsaid.  
“Silence” is a fitting title for her story of a mother who comes to pick
up her daughter, a young lady who has gone away on a spiritual
retreat.  When she arrives, she finds that her daughter has already
left, for reasons that remain unclear.  Did she need space to
construct her own life?  Did she object to her mother’s influence
over her?  Or her mother’s values?   Or lack thereof?  The silence
continues for weeks, then years, but it is more than just a breakdown
in family communication.  Even motivations, underlying causes,
long-term effects remain elusive.

Yes, just like your life, my life   Stories often beguile us by taking the
messy events of day-to-day experience, and presenting them as
unfolding in an orderly, comprehensible process.  Munro won’t play
that game, and if you yearn for clarity and closure, she won’t be
your kind of writer.   Let others celebrate the decisive heroes, the
captains who go in search of the great white whale.  We wish them
luck.   Meanwhile, as Munro’s readers have learned, the murky
waters close to shore sometimes hold even greater surprises.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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