Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
By Jason Coleman

Alice Munro has said that her concentration on short fiction is a holdover from her days as a young mother, when she wrote during her children’s naptimes and couldn’t commit to book-length projects. This sounds like one of those half-true remarks writers sometimes volunteer in order to close a subject they’d just rather not discuss. Nonetheless, it is a vivid image, Munro stealing what moments for herself she can in between her family’s demands. I can see her beating them away with a stick.

The distance she craves is something more, however, than merely a writer’s need for solitude. Reading the stories in her latest collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, I am struck by their intense preoccupation with escape, in all its forms. How often these people flee! The title character in "Queenie" makes a career of running away, and finally disappears altogether. Jinny of "Floating Bridge" doesn’t get any farther than the corner bus stop, staying just long enough to read the graffiti before walking back home—her husband never notices she left. But the car ride she agrees to with a perfect stranger in the story’s second half is an obvious echo of that initial impulse to drop out, to leave.

Johanna, in the collection’s title story, deploys an elaborate plan to escape to a whole new life—in Gdynia, Saskatchewan, which even the railroad men have never heard of. Inspired by fake love letters sent to her as a practical joke by a pair of teenaged girls, this housekeeper deserts her place of employment to come to the rescue of her supposed admirer, a bronchitis-racked young man she finds languishing in a broken-down hotel he won in a poker game. This wretch becomes the second great mission of her life—her second great love, you could even say. (The first had been a 96-year-old woman. "You might say what a life for a young person, but I was happy," Johanna says of her years of nursing her invalid former employer.) Barging now into this latest sickroom, she has been set up for a terrible humiliation. He doesn't love her; it was all just a prank. The ax, however, never falls. The object of her affections is at first too febrile to even rise from his bed, much less kick her out; and once the fever has broken, he has already been swept away by her organizational genius. She doesn’t just clean up his room, she cleans up his whole existence. They marry, have a baby, name it Omar. Which is at least a nicer name than Gdynia.

This placid outcome could be interpreted as a cynical take on the things that truly bind men to women; or it could simply be that Munro, playing the benevolent god, is granting that rare thing in her work—a happy ending. The story’s title, taken from a children’s game, refers simply to the different paths one’s life might take. Fate certainly is strange, and so sometimes things even turn out all right.

And sometimes they don’t. I guess resignation is about the kindest word for the state arrived at in "Post and Beam." This is one of those marriages, frequent in Munro’ s world, between a blue-collar woman and an intellectual, older man from a privileged background. The "post and beam" house the husband is so proud of is gradually revealed to be a prison to his young wife. She yearns for the freedom enjoyed by a young, unattached family friend on whom she has a platonic crush, even fleeing at one point to his unoccupied boardinghouse room, just to breathe in its simple air and escape that big sad barn she lives in (until her small children, parked outside, begin calling for her—in Munro, kids often play watchdogs to their parents’ impulses to stray).

This is gilded cage stuff, a cliché in anyone else’s hands, but Munro somehow makes it work. Maybe it’s in the wife’s choice of such an unlikely object of envy; her young friend lives at near-poverty level and has endured mental illness and electroshock therapy. But it’s also the undeniableness of passages like this: "She did not love him [her husband] enough. She would say she loved him, and mean it to a certain extent, and she wanted to be loved by him, but there was a little hum of hate running along beside her love, nearly all the time." A withering description, but not overdone. There’s no spite in it, no melodrama, just devastating clarity.

"Post and Beam" addresses the escape from a lower-class background that is so common among Munro’s heroines, as well as the need to escape the very marriage that made that first leap possible. The infidelity that is usually the next step has been a dominant theme in Munro’s work; she is fascinated by the way we withdraw from one person and flee to another, because she sees so clearly that a line is being drawn. It needn’t be a domestic upheaval on the order of the ruthless "The Children Stay" from her previous collection; it may be a one-day fling, like that described in "What Is Remembered" (where the lovers have to run the gauntlet of both a funeral and a rest-home visit to finally get to the sex), or the affair in "Nettles" that makes the air in the whole house heavy by not happening.

In "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," the tables are turned on a compulsive philanderer when his institutionalized wife, suffering from Alzheimer’s, takes up with a fellow patient. This grotesque parody of his own unfaithfulness, if not romance in general, signals a crucial shift in priorities. As they hit middle age, Munro’s characters have little time for love: they're too busy trying to stay alive. The stories’ settings are hospitals, rest homes, mental institutions, mortuaries. Nurses and doctors, rather than lovers, increasingly play the supporting roles. In one scene a dying professor discusses Turgenev from his bed in a cancer ward. In another story, a wife returns home from tennis to find her terminally ill husband has taken his life—she is unable to locate "undertakers" in the yellow pages and must look under "funeral directors." In each case, there's the mild shock that such tragedies are even possible. After her husband is diagnosed with ALS, a wife wonders, "And now that one unlikely thing had happened, couldn’t others?"

Lewis, the former high school teacher who commits suicide in "Comfort," is another of Munro’s escapees—only it’s oblivion he escapes into. The dead in Munro’s work often have a vaguely sinister quality to them, death rendering them not only absent but different. Finding him dead, Lewis’s wife Nina searches the bedroom for clues as if it were the cell of an escaped prisoner: there’s the undeniable, and somewhat menacing, sense here of a clean getaway.

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as good deaths and bad deaths, but if there is, Lewis’s is a bad one. It follows months of battling a horrible disease and, before that, being forced into early retirement after a bitter dispute over teaching evolution. A fighter to the end, Lewis’s suicide note contains not a farewell to Nina, but a poem satirizing his creationist enemies. This note is retrieved from Lewis’s pajama shirt pocket by an undertaker with whom Nina long ago shared a clandestine kiss in the kitchen while their spouses debated in the next room over the existence of miracles. Nina asks the undertaker if he believes in the human soul: "[H]e stood with his hands pressed down on her kitchen table. He sighed and shook his head and said, ‘Yes.’"

Lewis would never have been capable of such a response—he could not have managed the faith, nor the ambivalence. He was right to resist the creationists’ absurd literal-mindedness, but his skepticism was equally dogmatic and made him oblivious to the world’s mysterious beauty, evoked in the story’s ending: "[the cattails] were dried out now, tall and wintry-looking. There were also milkweeds, with their pods empty, shining like shells. Everything was distinct under the moon. She could smell horses. Yes—there were two of them close by, solid black shapes beyond the cattails and the farmer’s fence. They stood brushing their big bodies against each other, watching her." She is scattering his ashes, and the intense calm she experiences as she does so suggests a communion not with Lewis, as might be expected, but with the immediate world around her.

What a strain our lives are. Spouses to endure, controversies, illness. When all we want is to contemplate the cold night, or be kissed by a stranger in a dark kitchen.