If you open a road atlas at Ontario, you can see that the roads charted by the thin red and blue lines of Huron County, adhere to the geometry and history of acreage, drawing rectangles in a sprawl of rural sameness. At one intersection is the tiny town of Wingham (population c.2952), where Alice Munro was born in 1931, and twenty miles to the south, another tiny town: Clinton (population c.3240), where Munro has lived for the past thirty years with her second husband.
Munro seems from the outset to have had little doubt that she would be the heroine of her life. The first of her parents’ three children (the second was born five years later), she was left free – or obliged – to explore the open country around her in solitude. She didn’t play with other children because the family was poor and lived on the outskirts of town; for a time, before his business failed and he became a night watchman, her father was a fox and mink farmer. The climate was dramatic: winters were bitterly cold, and summers fiercely hot and pestilent. Munro was a pretty and precocious child who did recitations on the radio when she was three or four years old. A few years later, at school, she turned awkward and shy; younger than the other children, whom she didn’t know, she felt different from them and kept her distance. Before long, movie magazines had lured her into a fantasy world of glamour and sex. She made up stories, which she planned to make into movies in which she would star. ‘It was more than an escape,’ she said years later, ‘it was a solution. I had all this time to do it because I was not popular and did not have friends.’
Munro’s stories have tended to follow the personal and geographical facts of her life (or various extrapolations of and hypotheses surrounding those facts), many of which were provided a few years ago by her daughter Sheila Munro in an interesting memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. Following the tentative elementary-school beginnings, Munro went on to excel at high school and then to win a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she met her first husband. He offered her the only prospect of escape from Wingham, and was supportive of her writing, though the differences of class between them rankled in Munro. They moved to suburban Vancouver and started a family at once. With the rise of feminism and sexual freedom in the 1970s came affairs, then separation and divorce; the miseries and raptures of the newly discovered sexual self; difficulties with alienated, confused children; the illness, decline and death of one parent, then the other; the inevitable regrets and sorrows. These are some of the familiar threads of Munro’s fiction.
She has never ceased to be enthralled by her own progress through life, as well as by that of her family and forebears, early Irish and Scottish settlers in rural Ontario. She examines particular episodes over and over in different stories, each with slightly different though familiar characters, each with a slightly different arrangement of the facts, yielding slightly different emotional truths. Munro’s sphere of inquiry is both narrow and deep: she knows the larger world because she has taken it on herself to know herself. And because she is someone of prodigious drive and gifts – of intelligence and sensitivity, curiosity and imagination – what she produces is always worth paying attention to. She insists of her narratives that they reveal things which often confirm the reader’s own secret experience or suddenly bring to life something that was until then buried just under the surface of consciousness. Years ago, I came across a note written by Munro in the margin of the last galley of ‘Oranges and Apples’ (a story that ran in the New Yorker, where I was working), which documents the insane things that a character has done in his life in the hope of somehow crashing out of it. He does not know that he is doing these things, and he never does manage to get out, because when it comes down to it he never really wants to. ‘I see this as a fairly normal state of mind,’ her note read.
Occasionally, the stories may threaten to fall into feminist complaint or cliché, but Munro avoids this by sticking to the personal experience of her rebel female protagonists. Even Flora in ‘Friend of My Youth’, a spinster who represents all that the narrator abhors and has fought against, is someone she can’t help embracing, because she shows the same bitter stoicism and valour as her unknowable mother. ‘I think I knew at heart I was an ageing spinster,’ Munro once said, only half-joking. She has maintained a fierce allegiance to the people of her rural upbringing, and her ability to capture them honestly and fully (in particular, the father and the mother figures who appear throughout her work) is one of her great achievements. The language of her characters and the way they communicate is expertly set down: the simple kindness, the casual cruelty; the smallness, the magnanimity. She vividly describes the rural Ontario landscape and the encroachments of modern life that now assail it. And she is endlessly patient with her characters’ emotions, and indulgent of them; as when a woman takes a long, assessing look around the room before deciding where to place the ashes of her dead husband, which have just been delivered by the undertaker, a man to whom she has been emotionally linked for years.
In Munro’s story ‘The Progress of Love’, the narrator comes to realise that she has misremembered one of the seminal episodes in her mother’s life: her burning in the kitchen stove, dollar bill by dollar bill, of an inheritance from her father, whom she despised, while her husband stood by, giving his tacit support. This, the narrator comes to understand, did not happen. Her mother did burn the banknotes (for reasons that are also at issue), but her father was not standing protectively by. He knew nothing about it, or so it seems. The story, which unfolds quietly over the course of a car journey, with the father in the front seat and the mother in the back, is meant to underscore the vagaries of memory, the slipperiness of the truth, the wide gulfs that exist even within secure marriages, and the ways in which we arrange the facts in order to maximise consolation, to avoid painful realities. ‘How hard it is for me to believe that I made that up,’ the narrator says of the imagined moment of intimacy between her parents. ‘It seems so much the truth it is the truth; it’s what I believe about them.’
Several of the stories in Munro’s new book, Runaway, concern an ageing female protagonist looking back on her life: on the mistakes, misadventures, misunderstandings, or just the strangeness of it, puzzling over what actually happened. As always, Munro’s subject is the past, and how the past changes as time passes, quite often in this collection metamorphosing into a monster of rebuke or mockery, indifference or incoherence. Munro looks at the ravages of the years and the consequent blurring of memory, which sometimes verges on hallucination. She reflects on the inexplicable attachments that bind men and women together; the mistakes made, and regretted by, self-absorbed parents with their young children; the loss of a talent; the loss of a child. Runaway is a book about the fear of losing what is most precious to us, and about the actuality of loss. Death features in every story; the ashes of the dead are scattered all over the place.
With Runaway, Munro has made a radical departure from the rich, consuming stories of her superb last collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. She has spoken of the problem of ‘using up your childhood’ as material, and of her interest in writing stories about ‘alternate realities’. In a Paris Review interview ten years ago, she said of her story ‘Carried Away’:
I just kept fooling around with it and wrote that weird ending. Maybe it’s something to do with age. Changing your perception of what has happened – not just what can happen but what really has happened. I have all these disconnected realities in my own life, and I see them in other people’s lives. That was one of the problems – why I couldn’t write novels, I never saw things hanging together any too well.
The Fates seem to be lurking in almost every story in Runaway. There is an erotic tale about the abduction of a young woman by an alcoholic doctor who is the half-brother of her fiancé. He takes her about the countryside in his convertible, like Zeus in his chariot. Twin brothers are used to tell a hardly credible story of mistaken identity. There is an oracle who loses her psychic abilities. And then there is the magical reappearance of a missing goat out of the mist late one night, bringing about an ad hoc rapprochement between two antagonists which rings utterly false.
Perhaps, faced with the endless possibilities of interpreting or presenting reality, Munro has grown weary with the effort required. Or perhaps it’s just a simple desire to try something new, to go on a lark, or to take a risk, like the father in ‘The Moons of Jupiter’, who suddenly changes his mind about having heart surgery: ‘The trouble was I was always afraid to take chances,’ he says (not something a young man would ever think to say).
‘It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember,’ Mark Twain remarked in later life, ‘as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.’ Life is so full of wild incongruities and strangeness, of alternate realities. Why not go ahead and suspend disbelief; anything is possible. At the same time, certain hard-wired memories prevail, and one of the most interesting aspects of the collection is the way in which echoes of Munro’s previous stories reassert themselves.
‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, three interconnected stories, are the most intimate and, in their length and breadth, the most compelling in the collection. They concern a gifted, determined classics scholar, Juliet, and follow her life, from the time when she meets on a train the man who becomes the father of her child and eventually her husband, through late middle age, when loss and regret hit hard. Indeed, Munro herself has described these stories as being about regret for past mistakes, and at the same time about the inability to imagine how one might have done things differently.
Juliet loses her husband early in an accident at sea, but her other losses are not unusual: the decline and death of her parents; the death of her closest friend from multiple sclerosis; the loss of her looks and, consequently, of lovers; the marginalisation that comes with age. But then there comes a singular loss: of her only child, Penelope, who is, tellingly, always a distant character. When Penelope is 20, she falls under the sway of New Age spiritualists. After a six-month absence at a retreat in the woods, Penelope summons Juliet. ‘It’s time,’ she writes. But when Juliet arrives on the appointed day, Penelope has vanished. The news is related with covert, gleeful hostility by the woman who runs the Spiritual Balance Centre – you know the type instantly. But this is the problem. She’s a caricature, just like Don, the Christian minister who appears twenty years earlier, when Juliet is visiting her parents for the first time with her baby daughter. Their encounters with Juliet are so uncharacteristic of Munro as to make for almost painful reading. When Don, a friend of Juliet’s ailing mother, Sara, stops by, he almost at once starts trying to bully Juliet into giving her daughter a Christian baptism and upbringing. Juliet recoils, and aggressively asserts her atheism. Bizarrely, the scene ends with Don having a hypoglycaemic attack – he’s diabetic – and then running away without even thanking Juliet for the grape soda she’s just ministered to him. Is this supposed to be funny? An instance of Christian hypocrisy? (Munro has addressed the problem of religious dogma before, with greater subtlety: in ‘Comfort’, for instance, in which Lewis, an evolutionist schoolteacher, takes on the giddy, voluptuous Kitty, a steely proponent of Creationism and the communion of saints, while her husband is planting a clandestine kiss on the throat of Lewis’s wife in the kitchen.)
In ‘Soon’, the confrontation with Don is so jarring as to undercut the story’s pivotal moment: Juliet, following Don’s hasty retreat, turns her back on her dying and vulnerable mother. ‘When it gets really bad for me,’ Sara says, ‘you know what I think then? I think, all right. I think – Soon. Soon I’ll see Juliet.’ Juliet responds to what she perceives as sentimental manipulation with stony silence. It is the moment that she will regret for the rest of her life and, interestingly, a moment that appears in startlingly similar form in ‘Friend of My Youth’, when the mother says, ‘with such astonishing, light-hearted forgiveness: “Oh, I knew you’d come someday.”’
The episode when Juliet’s husband, Eric, is killed at sea in ‘Silence’ is also dismaying. Penelope is then 13 years old and away with a friend on a camping trip. When Eric’s body is found, washed up on the shore, half-eaten by an animal, it is suddenly decided that it would be a good idea to burn it in a funeral pyre on the beach (in the manner of the ancients). Apart from the strained credibility of the ritual itself, the whole event is lost on Juliet until someone shouts: ‘Get the kids out of here.’
This was when the flames had reached the body, bringing the realisation, coming rather late, that the consumption of fat, of heart and kidneys and liver, might produce explosive or sizzling noises disconcerting to hear. . . . [Juliet] thought of whoever it was – Trelawny? – snatching Shelley’s heart out of the flames. The heart, with its long history of significance. Strange to think how even at that time, not so long ago, one fleshly organ should be thought so precious, the site of courage and love. It was just flesh, burning. Nothing connected with Eric.
The sense of disconnection is mirrored in Penelope’s reaction to her father’s death: she receives the news ‘with an expression of fright, then – when Juliet rather formally put her arms around her – of something like embarrassment’. Not long afterwards, Juliet hears Penelope speaking to her friends about her father: ‘Well, I hardly knew him, really.’ It is not until months later that Juliet’s grief registers and she decides to tell Penelope the story of the burning of Eric’s body on th beach, along with the secrets of their marriage. ‘I shouldn’t burden you with all this,’ Juliet says, and then goes right ahead and does so. After Penelope disappears, on her own birthday she sends pretty unsigned birthday cards to Juliet, who recognises her daughter’s handwriting on the envelope. Later she wonders rather pathetically whether her mistake was not to have sent Penelope to Sunday school. Juliet is always less than candid, but perhaps that’s the point: like all of us, she’s stuck with who she is.
Other familiar moments recur in stories such as ‘Tricks,’ in which a young woman, Robin, meets a man on the street; they have dinner together, kiss and fall in love, and she promises to come to see him again in a year, wearing the same dress, as he asks. She dutifully arrives the following year, but the man, instead of greeting her at the door with joyful recognition, bares his teeth, giving her a hideous animal look, much the same look that Rose’s ex-husband, Patrick, in ‘The Beggar Maid’, gives her on seeing her at the airport, long after their divorce: ‘He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savage, warning face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing.’ But not all men’s hideous expressions signify the same thing, as Robin learns years later. Too late, too late.
The most vivid story in the collection, ‘Passion’, is an odd and interesting variant of ‘The Beggar Maid’. As the story opens, an older woman, Grace, is driving around a maze of new streets, trying to find her way back to the vacation house of her college fiancé and in the process recalling a fateful Thanksgiving Day when she was a scholarship student working as a waitress and engaged to an earnest, worthy young man named Maury, who bored her to tears. In this version of the story, though, Grace does not agree to marriage with a man unsuited to her; she escapes it, through something like divine – or profane – intervention. That Thanksgiving, Grace injures her foot just as Neil, Maury’s half-brother and an alcoholic doctor, arrives at the house. After whisking her off to hospital for a tetanus shot, the two end up whirling through the countryside in Neil’s convertible in search of alcohol. It’s a very sad story, and you leave it feeling something like Nancy’s disorientation on waking up from a dream at the end of ‘Powers’, with the bits and pieces of her dream lying around her, ‘disjointed, unaccommodating’.
In ‘Family Furnishings’, a story from Munro’s previous collection, the narrator, another scholarship student and aspiring writer, after a dispiriting lunch with her narrow, competitive cousin, begins the slow five-mile walk back to her boarding house:
When I had walked for over an hour, I saw a drugstore that was open. I went in and had a cup of coffee. The coffee was reheated, black and bitter – its taste medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who had served me was listening to on the radio . . . The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.
This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.
For Alice Munro, it’s how her life has been. Just as she always imagined it.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.