I forget how or why I decided I needed to read some Alice Munro, but I remember thinking she seemed like the kind of person I might take a chance on identifying with. Runaway is a very nice, surprising collection of essays, with individual pieces that I found moving and relatable, but on the whole, I’m not sure Munro is for me.
Munro has a way of building a beautiful world, dropping in incredibly sympathetic characters and then saturating that world with those characters’ crunchiest, least appealing traits. I’m with her when she introduces the characters, and even when she lets us get to know them a bit, but then she has this tendency to layer in details of the emotionally-unimportant or visually-repulsive variety.
I’ll first share a few of those pleasant, world-building snippets. Here are a couple simple, specific descriptions of the houses in a small town: “… with a yard full of firewood, lumber and tires, cars and parts of cars, broken or usable bikes, toys, all the things that have to sit outside when people are lacking garages or basements” and “… most of the houses are like those in the woods, each one in its own wide cluttered yard, as if they have been built within sight of each other only accidentally” (p. 50). See, that’s nice. This one is, too, even if it sounds a touch outdated: “That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with” (p. 164).
But Munro can go dark, too. At one point she describes rape as “being broken into,” which is at once beautiful and horrifying. And this passage on adultery, from p. 174, sneaks up on you: “And she thought it must be a relief to Maury to be driving down the highway by himself, rearranging his impressions of his Grace so that he could stay wholeheartedly in love with her.”
Now, onto the characters. Munro favors solitary women, to whom I’m generally able to relate, by bringing us into their vulnerability. “Tricks,” for example, in part details a woman’s attempt to spend the evening alone, treating herself to dinner and such. And “Trespasses” really nails how cliques inflict pain with exclusivity. Munro is also not afraid to extend her characters’ stories as long as necessary. “Juliet” is the focus of three of the short stories in Runaway, and “Soon” provides the immediate sequel to “Chance” that I didn’t even know I wanted. “Silence,” which wraps up the trilogy, is perhaps the most heartbreaking, since it deals with Juliet’s estrangement from her daughter. By the end of it, you feel completely connected to this fictional person’s life, and you gain a skeletal but profound appreciation for that part of motherhood that no one really talks about — communication.
So, finally, the annoying stuff. Munro leans on a comma-heavy stream-of-consciousness crutch, which I found difficult to read. And her blatant worship of the Canadian version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is rampant. Those two grievances can be summed up in one passage, actually: “Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary — and so, in a way, she was” (p. 56). Here’s another one that made my skin crawl: “As she was herself by now, and Penelope, on the steps, even more so” (p. 98). To me, these types of ugly sentences completely negate the elegant ones she constructed elsewhere in the book. They’re like rough drafts inserted into the final version, and they took me completely out of the scene and story and into Munro’s possibly-neurotic brain. It’s enough having the stories themselves center around the aforementioned MPDG — but to have the narrator channeling it, too? I’m against it. I don’t think touchy-feely-type phraseology does any favors for the characters’ likability. It doesn’t add credible flaws to the characters; instead, it discredits Munro’s narrative voice. She couldn’t resist adding in-text footnotes that were better left unsaid, and now the stories are slathered with this mumbling, emotional excess.
Munro overshares without the commas, too. On p. 319, she attempts to summarize an entire gender, but it ends up falling incredibly flat within the context of the story: “Plenty of men never had a word to say about their lives, beyond when and where. But there were others, more up-to-date, who gave these casual-sounding yet practiced speeches in which it was said that life was indeed a bumpy road, but misfortunes had pointed the way to better things, lessons were learned, and without a doubt joy came in the morning.” This passage is clearly based on one person who existed in Munro’s life, and it would be much more effective as the character’s memory, rather than a sweeping generalization about men. I think it further discredits her voice; while she’s clearly a champion of women, I had a hard time believing this negative, out-of-nowhere stance about men. She seems much smarter than that.
My last complaint is about a paragraph on p. 61 that details what happens in the bathroom stall when a woman is on her period. I’m all for erasing the stigma around menstruation, because it happens to exactly 50% of the population. But Munro combined words in that graf that didn’t need to be combined. I considered bringing you all down with me and writing a couple of those word combinations here, but I’ll spare you, so long as you promise not to think periods are gross, because they’re not. (They are, but only those of us with XX chromosomes can say that.) I wish she would have spared me.
I’m open to reading more Munro, but I’ll need a pretty good argument for it first. For now, though, I’ll respect her female-driven fiction from afar — far south of the Canadian border.