Sunday, January 06, 2008
Runaway by Alice Munro
Sometimes when I'm at my public library I'll see a book on the shelf that I'm really glad to see the library has bought (poetry, small press books, foreign authors, "difficult" fiction...). And even if it's a book I don't necessarily plan to read, I'll check it out. I figure that's my one way to express my approval and to encourage the library to buy more books like that. And so I checked out this collection of Munro stories (which the library had suddenly bought in paperback) without really intending to read it since I figured I'd read most of the stories already in the New Yorker. This isn't an expression of distaste for Munro--she's my favorite living short story writer--but more of my familiarity with her. And I don't often read collections of stories anymore. I read a lot of single stories in magazines and anthologies, but I've gotten out of the habit of picking up collections. Anyway...once I started to read, I couldn't stop. I'll often have that feeling with a good novel but it's rare that I sit and read one story after another. I've talked before about what I like about Munro stories--they are so layered that they feel like implied novels. And it's much discussed that she is one of the few story writers to let years (often decades or an entire adulthood) pass during a single story. But the thing I noticed this time around is how good she is at writing scenes in which a character is alone. Pretty often I find myself encouraging my students to add a second character to a scene so that the main character has someone to talk to, to react against, to do stuff with. Because a scene in which a character is alone is often just one in which they think and think and think and don't actually do anything. But what Munro has reminded me of is when we are alone we usually are in action (well, not me, I'm usually on the couch reading or watching The Wire--I have five seasons to catch up on!). Giving a character something to do while alone can often reveal quite a lot about them--after all, we are (or is it just me?) most ourselves when nobody is with us. But one of the reasons these scenes work for Munro is she is exceptionally good at giving characters thoughts/emotions that are interesting to read--while her characters clean house, or whatever they are doing, they are thinking things that reveal their emotional state very deeply. It's a good reminder to me not to come up with generic solutions (add a character!) to writing problems.