Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Need to Know -- Alice Munro's "Runaway"

"Runaway," the title story in one of Alice Munro's short story collections (and originally published in The New Yorker), illustrates one of her favorite tricks: teasing the reader by withholding information that is known to the narrator.

This is a standard technique for creating profluence, even though you will see objections to its use. The narrative refers to an important event without disclosing the nature of the event, or refers to a death without disclosing the nature of the death or the identity of the victim, and so on. The reader wants to know what happened, or who died, and so on, and reads to find out. The objection is that it's an authorial trick, introduced specifically for the purpose of keeping the reader engaged, rather than a mystery that arises naturally from the story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is just annoying.

In "Runaway," a young wife (Carla) listens from her barn as a car passes on the road. She's afraid it might be Sylvia:

If it was somebody coming to see them, the car would be slowing down by now. But still Carla hoped. Let it not be her.

So, naturally, we ask, "Why? Why not her?" But Alice refuses to tell us until later. Much later.

And even when she does reveal the answer, the revelation is teased out. We learn that the young wife's husband (Clark) plans to blackmail Sylvia:

Shortly afterward, Clark said, “We could’ve made him pay.”

Carla knew at once what he was talking about, but she took it as a joke.

“Too late now,” she said. “You can’t pay once you’re dead.”

“He can’t. She could.”

“She’s gone to Greece.”

“She’s not going to stay in Greece.”

“She didn’t know,” Carla said more soberly. “She didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“I didn’t say she did.”

“She doesn’t have a clue about it.”

“We could fix that.”

Carla said, “No. No.”

Clark went on as if she hadn’t spoken.

“We could say we’re going to sue. People get money for stuff like that all the time.”

“How could you do that? You can’t sue a dead person.”

“Threaten to go to the papers. Big-time poet. The papers would eat it up. All we have to do is threaten and she’d cave in. How much are we going to ask for?”

“You’re just fantasizing,” Carla said. “You’re joking.”

“No. Actually, I’m not.”

And we're screaming, what the heck is it?

Finally, we learn that it is a sexual advance supposedly made by Sylvia's husband toward Carla.

But Alice isn't finished with us yet. She goes for the hat trick. Carla's pet goat has been missing from the beginning of the story. In the middle of a late night confrontation between Clark and Sylvia, the goat reappears, ghost-like, from the fog. The next day, Clark tells Carla all about his conversation with Sylvia, but never mentions the goat. Neither does the narrator mention the goat. We are left to shout, What About the Goat???

Not until the story's conclusion is this question answered, and in a chilling manner.

The bottom line: you might object to this technique; it might make you feel manipulated. But the story is impossible to put down.