‘Runaway’ by Alice Munro

Munro, Alice 2003Runaway by Alice Munro, 2003

The magic trick:

Navigating a very normal, believable character through a series of extreme, abnormal decisions and situations

After three days of stories from Munro’s 1968 debut collection Dance Of The Hpapy Shades, we return to the 21st century today, though the rural Canadian setting remains the same.

I’ll tell you one thing: the magic trick is not the goat. I’ve been on an Alice Munro kick for about a month now, as I write this, and I love the natural quality to her writing. It just flows out – never encumbered by self-conscience or labored literary devices like, say, a half-magic, half-metaphorical goat! No, the goat in this story feels very un-Munro-like. And yet I do very much like this story. Why? The character of Carla.

The mechanics of the plot require her to be so many extremes. She’s in crisis mode, making drastic decisions left and right. I can’t imagine looking at the outline for this story as a writer and facing the task of how in the world I might believably maneuver Carla’s character through each plot point. But such is the essence of Munro’s genius.

She shades in the areas between drastic decision so well that every major plot point feels justified while still retaining some aspect of surprise and suspense. Carla’s relationship with Syliva, in particular, is remarkable, mixing fear and flirtation, kindness and extraordinary selfishness. Ultimately, Carla is simply a normal person – not horrible, but flawed and mostly weak. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part. (Goat or no goat.)

The selection:

The bus had stopped now at a gas station in the first town on the way. It was the very station that she and Clark used to drive to, in their early days, to buy cheap gas. In those days, their world had included several towns in the surrounding countryside, and they had sometimes behaved like tourists, sampling the specialties in grimy hotel bars. Pigs’ feet, sauerkraut, potato pancakes, beer. They would sing all the way home like crazy hillbillies.

But after a while all outings came to be seen as a waste of time and money. They were what people did before they understood the realities of their lives.

She was crying now—her eyes had filled up without her realizing it. She tried to think about Toronto, the first steps ahead. The taxi, the house she had never seen, the strange bed she would sleep in alone. Looking in the phone book tomorrow for the addresses of riding stables, then getting to wherever they were, asking for a job.

She could not picture it. Herself riding on the subway or a streetcar, caring for new horses, talking to new people, living among hordes of people every day who were not Clark. A life, a place, chosen for that specific reason: that it would not contain Clark.

The strange and terrible thing about that world of the future, as she now pictured it, was that she would not exist in it. She would only walk around, and open her mouth and speak, and do this and do that. She would not really be there. And what was strange about it was that she was doing all this, she was riding on this bus, in the hope of recovering herself. As Mrs. Jamieson might say—and as she herself might have said with satisfaction—taking charge of her own life. With nobody glowering over her, nobody’s mood infecting her with misery, no implacable mysterious silence surrounding her.

But what would she care about? How would she know that she was alive?

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