I began Alice Munro’s book of short stories Runaway last night, and I finished the first one, the title story. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories; what Diana said about the effort it takes to get into a story and the fatigue of having to do it again and again with a book of stories really resonated with me. With a novel, you orient yourself once, or maybe a couple of times with new characters and locations, but then you’re set, and you’re in a world for as long as the novel lasts, and you can return again and again to that world every time you pick the book up. I like to live with characters for a while.
But I do want to read more stories, and while A Curious Singularity, the short story discussion group, is helping me, I’m eager to read some collections of stories on my own. Okay, that sounds more planned and organized than I really feel — I got inspired to read stories when I saw the Munro book, and I’m getting the feeling that I should continue to read stories now and then.
So, the Munro story was good [spoilers ahead]. It’s about a young married woman Clara, her husband Clark, and their older neighbor Sylvia; Clara turns to Sylvia for help when she realizes how unhappy she is in her marriage. Munro describes the marriage dynamic extraordinarily well; I can see just why Clark was so difficult, just why Clara would have been attracted to him in the first place, and just why she’d think about leaving him. And why she’d return, as much as I didn’t want her to. Munro can dramatize all this history and all these feelings so effortlessly.
I remember a commenter telling me to look out for the goat in this book — well, the goat appears in this first story and turns out to be the story’s symbolic center. Clara’s goat Flora is missing through most of the story, but she appears at a crucial moment near the conclusion when Clark confronts Sylvia for helping Clara run away. The goat comes walking out of a fog, illuminated by passing headlights, and frightens the two characters, so that Clark grabs Sylvia’s shoulder in a protective move and she lets him do so, although the two had just been fighting. Sylvia writes to Clara later that:
[Flora’s] appearance at that moment did have a profound effect on your husband and me. When two human beings divided by hostility are both, at the same time, mystified — no, frightened — by the same apparition, there is a bond that springs up between then, and they find themselves united in the most unexpected way. United in their humanity — that is the only way I can describe it. We parted almost as friends. So Flora has her place as a good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband’s life and yours.
And yet — if you’ve read the story, you’ll know this is not what happens at all. Flora comes to stand for something much different — much darker — in their marriage. So the story ends, not with the issues resolved and not with the kind of reconciliation Sylvia hopes they might have had:
All she could hope was that perhaps Clara’s flight and turbulent emotions had brought her true feelings to the surface and perhaps a recognition in her husband of his true feelings as well.
If Clara and Clark have recognized their true feelings by the end of the story, this recognition is not an easy or a rewarding one. Sylvia’s hopes are a dark counterpoint to the reality of the marriage — a marriage in which Clara now seems firmly entrenched.
Okay, now I’m depressed. But, sigh, this seems like real life to me. I suppose part of Munro’s genius is to capture a rich, if dark, emotional world in such a short space. I’m looking forward to the rest of the stories in this collection.