I would like to write a very strongly-worded letter to every institution of higher education I’ve ever attended and ask them why I’ve never been made to read Alice Munro.
It’s a name I’ve heard, for sure. I worked at an independent bookstore for five years (my longest held employment – go figure) and patrons would generate a mellow buzz whenever she released a new collection. I was always like, okay, sure, whatever. But everyone’s response to her was so calm, so guardedly enthusiastic, that I never considered investing my time in reading her works.
Which leads to this past week, when I was looking for a little short story escapism. By happenstance (i.e. aggressive browsing), I stumbled upon Alice Munro’s short story “Runaway.” available here! Free! In the New Yorker! (Who I’m a little mad at bc I’ve used all my free articles this month so I can’t go back and confirm my notes which makes me huffy. I guess it’s their right to expect payment from readers, but whatever I’m pissed.)
I’m going to step in for every authoritative literary figure in your life who’s maybe let you down and say: please read this short story. Please give little old humble Nobel-prize winning Alice Munro a chance.
Up there with “Brokeback Mountain” and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I can say honestly that this short story was one of most affecting pieces I’ve read in the past six months. It’s really helping me re-think the way I approach scenes in my fiction. How, you ask? WELL, THANKS FOR ASKING. It all comes down to Alice Munro’s economical yet gorgeous sentences; her unadorned and purposeful descriptions; and her masterful synthesis of elements to create a cohesive whole.
More than anything, her work encapsulates this quote from another master of fiction, Kurt Vonnegut (I’ve been in a real Vonnegut mood lately):
“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”
Throughout “Runaway,” Vonnegut’s edict really resonated. (I’m about to start quoting things willy-nilly, so if you’re afraid of spoilers, I recommend reading the story first!) As a refresher, “Runaway” focuses on an unhealthy marriage between Clark and Carla. Sylvia, their well-meaning neighbor, attempts to help Carla run away from the bad situation. By the end of the story, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of the three major characters. Plus the goat. You’ll see.
Anyway, let’s look at an example of Munro’s amazing Purposeful Paragraph, this one offering exposition and characterization of Clark:
“On the Web, right now, he was hunting for a place to buy roofing. Some salvage outlet, with prices that they could afford, or somebody trying to get rid of such material, secondhand. He would not go to Hy and Robert Buckley’s Building Supply in town, which he called Highway Robbers Buggery Supply, because he owed them money and had had a fight with them.”
Every piece of description in those sentences is important. Clark’s not searching on the web, he’s “hunting,” which highlights the predatory aspects of his characterization. In addition to revealing elements of character, that first sentence moves the story along, telling us readers that there’s a pressing need for roofing. In the story, the collapsed-roof-rainy-summer issue is a huge contributor to conflict and drama.
The second sentence outlines their financial insecurity neatly. The third sentence introduces a key concept: Clark is the type of person who starts fights with and alienates other people. Neat paragraph, right?
Really makes one wonder how much of one’s writing just goes towards beefing up one’s word count.
In a technical sense, I found Munro’s descriptions to be very economical and well thought out. In addition to providing short & sweet word candy, her descriptions enrichen the reading experience and reveal more than just setting:
The sun was shining, as it had been for some time. At lunch, it had made the wineglasses sparkle. And there was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole countryside was changing, shaking itself loose, into the true brightness of a July day. And as they sped along she didn’t see much trace of the recent past—no big puddles in the fields, showing where the seed had washed out, no miserable spindly cornstalks or lodged grain.
The previous descriptive paragraph describes the scene seen by Carla as she leaves the mobile home she shares with Clark. Munro obviously has a way of animating the elements with active and engaging verbs. The wind lifts the roadside grasses. The summer clouds scud across the sky and the countryside shakes itself loose. You can feel the movement, sense the potential for positive change.
This description is not only beautiful. It also highlights the contrast between this sunny scene and Carla’s previous location: a rainy farm with spindly cornstalks and lodged grain. A place of stagnation, dreariness, and dashed hopes. And Clark.
Many beginning writers (myself totally included) tend to engage in descriptions as sort of a writing exercise, to see how closely we can get a scene to pop into our readers’ heads. After reading this short story, I’ve realized how important it is to weave the description in with the plot and characterization as the story. In good writing, words aren’t wasted. Everything is an element of story.
So, what’s my point? Nothing in Munro’s stories is purposeless. No breath is wasted, no opportunity lost. You find this at every level of the story, unearthing meanings both large and small.
The goat’s a good example of cohesion. If you’ve read the story, you’ll find that a goat named Flora has a major role. As the story progresses, climaxes, and ends, it becomes clear that Flora the goat is a stand-in for Carla. There are so many parallels between the goat and the woman throughout the story (running away and returning; following Clark around; Carla’s spoken identification with the animal, etc.).
This identification with Flora, established subtly and with minimal fuss throughout the story, becomes incredible important at the novel’s climax. Also, their similarities add an intense emphasis to the last few words of the story. (Which are, in classic Munro fashion, extraordinarily important to the story as a whole.)
In other words, nothing about the Flora subplot is wasted. It all contributes to the story and our understanding of Carla and Clark’s dynamic. There are more little things, keys and clues that synthesize the story nicely: the buzzards in the sky, Sylvia’s ability to find flowers in improbable spaces, the fence on their property, the crumbling roof, etc, etc.
And that’s why I ever-so-boldly said it before and I’ll say it again: in terms of style, “Runaway” is one of the most important things I’ve read all year. Weirdly. It’s really making me look at my own work with a more critical (like I could get more critical) eye.
And helping me sentence better.