A Hugely Gifted Coquette, Munro Takes the Long View

Runaway, by Alice Munro. Alfred A. Knopf, 335 pages, $25.

Does anyone know if the word “coquette” was in vogue in Canada in the 1940’s? Because if it was, you can be sure that the gravely gifted and always interesting short-story writer Alice Munro, born in rural Ontario in 1931, didn’t get through high school without hearing a lot of it aimed in her direction.

Or maybe not. Maybe she was one of those teens who funneled all her energy into the track team, or the literary magazine, steering clear of those classmates who indulged in the immemorial practice of leading suitors on. In either case, I mean no disrespect to the grand dame of New Yorker contributors; let me hasten to add (or not so hasteningly-let me say it leisurely, loiteringly, taking my sweet coquettish time), that I intend the term in the most flattering sense. A literary coquette, let us stipulate, is someone who-like Ms. Munro in her worthy but rather hysterically overpraised latest collection, Runaway-piques our interest early, backtracks to fill out the context, ambles around the edges of our patience, holds all in abeyance while tension mounts, and delivers the goods at a time and place of her own choosing, if at all.

So what is the literary coquette’s M.O.? Typically, she (or he) specializes in a mouth-watering come-on-certain car passengers, say, are driving around in their pajamas at midnight-about which she tells us nothing more for many pages. The characters-sometimes as many as three or four in the opening paragraphs-all know more than the reader and won’t let on while the story ambles along, dilating tantalizingly and only gradually looping back to take care (or not) of our desperate narrative needs.

The technique is deliberate, reliable and (God knows) time-tested. Some of the world’s favorite literary coquettes-Stephen King being perhaps the crudest and most transparently manipulative-compute their suspense by degrees in order to leave us hanging. Unless we’re prone to the literary equivalent of blue balls, hanging’s not necessarily a bad thing, even if we admit that the impulse to write this way-to deny the reader vital information or a central secret-is essentially withholding when not downright passive-aggressive.

Ms. Munro holds back well. She opens one of the eight stories in this, her 11th collection, with a green-faced man near a tree “fruited with jewels”; not till we turn the page are we told we’re inside a Chagall print. The starkly titled stories most often feature a solitary woman with something of a gypsy air (or at least a free-form country sensibility), likely to be traveling the Canadian countryside in search of someone’s old summer house in a state of composed semi-bewilderment, fueled by nostalgia to which she will never quite surrender, half ruing the lost years, half comforted that they are gone. Oddly buoyed by “lack of hope-genuine, reasonable, and everlasting,” she’s also sustained by a sense of solidarity with other women, both “stricken with respect” for the older role models of her youth and assured that her sister-sufferers are the sterner sex: “Women have always got something, haven’t they, to keep them going? That men haven’t got.”

Strict with herself, as befits the class tease, she is brave and stoical, even when her beloved daughter (in the devastating story “Silence”) runs off to a spiritual retreat and, year after agonizing year, opts not to return. Stiffened by inner resources, she appears in one story (perhaps standing in for the strong-jawed and frumpy-hatted Ms. Munro herself?) as “beautiful, with her cropped black hair and her thin gold earrings like exclamation points, and her faintly mauve eyelids. Her manner … was crisp and her expression remote, but this was broken by strategic, vivid smiles.”

Often lapsing into reminiscence, these splendid women-just beyond our fingertips!-are burdened by a sense of propriety so old-fashioned that one of them is reluctant to call a young doctor by his first name, while another declines to use the word “breast” to describe where Cleopatra’s asp mortally bit her. Somewhat stunted by the limitations of their time and place (“She gags on the word spirituality, which seems to take in … everything from prayer wheels to High Mass”), most are concerned with nothing more earth-shaking than the business of marriage proposals-who is egging on whom, who gets turned down for the third time and who is marked for spinsterhood. (In this regard, it may be of interest to note that “Some of the best-looking, best-turned-out women in town are those who did not marry.”)

All these details are delivered in the manner of a prom queen of yore dispensing her favors to the football captain while she hums the school anthem-dispassionately, almost with a sense of disavowal. “She recalled now how the sun was coming up behind them, how she looked at Clark’s hands on the wheel, the dark hairs on his competent forearms, and breathed in the smell of the inside of the truck, a smell of oil and metal, tools and horse barns. The cold air of the fall morning blew in through the truck’s rusted seams.” And then, of course, there’s the chasteness of the act itself: “The conversation of kisses. Subtle, engrossing, fearless, transforming.” Of actual congress, nary a word.

So what’s it like for a coquette to be teased herself? Ms. Munro’s characters seem to thrive on it, whether they’re pining for an estranged daughter’s return, in one story, or counting the days that separate them from a potential lover, in another. (Ardently touching her fingers to the name of her beloved’s hometown on a map, “she might have touched the very place he was in” and becomes aware “of a shine on herself, on her body, on her voice and all her doings,” making her “walk differently and smile for no reason.” The yearning gives purpose to her existence, filling her with “tension and defiance, the risk of her life.”) And when the unspeakable occurs-when word comes down that the daughter has produced five grandchildren that the mother has no hope of meeting, or when the man seems to turn his lover away without a word of explanation-their corseted natures do them proud: Ms. Munro’s characters won’t let themselves go. Women in Runaway are given to weeping offstage; afterward, we see only their reddened eyes.

In the end, her sufferance bequeaths Ms. Munro the long view, the ability to witness and anticipate how small towns change over time, how old houses heave and give up the ghost, how families morph and vengeances are wreaked and love sparks anew, sometimes from the very ashes that seemed to cool decades earlier. Call it the wisdom of the literary coquette. One after the other, these stories, saturated with grieving insight, leave us “outraged, but warmed from a distance, clear of shame”-with endings that are as satisfyingly appropriate as they are goose-bumpingly unforgettable. And that’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer.