Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.
– Alice Munro, ‘Runaway’, from Runaway, Vintage, 2005 (also in The New Yorker (11 August 2003) – online here.
In a writing class, I was once given an exercise of analysing sentence rhythm by replacing all the nouns and verbs in the opening sentence of a favourite story with different ones. But I had brought in Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’, and I felt an almost violent aversion to doing it.
It’s not a very showy opening sentence, but I do think it’s quite wonderful. Though I find it hard to get at why. I can tell you that it has fairly simple syntax and unpresuming vocabulary, but carries meaning potently: we learn that Carla fears or anticipates someone’s arrival, and that this is a rural community that is small and cohesive enough to have its own way of speaking. But I feel that I am pulling a ham sandwich apart and declaring my outrage that it’s just a bit of ham and two slices of bread. The ham-sandwichiness of the thing is lost.
Munro’s prose is so unassuming, it’s easy to fail to give her credit for what she’s doing. You will never catch her out in writerliness – in cleverness, in theatrics, in self-reflexiveness. I suppose I should say she is a very skilled, close-third-person naturalistic realist, though when I say that, I feel like a sodden hessian sack has been dropped on my upturned face. Also I feel that, for reasons I would struggle to pin down, people I know on twitter are about to be cross with me. (Admittedly I am still nursing a certain bruisedness from the storm of contrarian critique that Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize win stirred up.)
Why it sticks
I am taking a long time to get to the goodness of this particular story, and I can feel the reader getting rightfully annoyed with me. The truth is I don’t really want to open this ham sandwich and start flapping its bits around. I’m so devoted to it as a reader, I’m afraid of breaking the effect with analysis.
Oh god, okay, I’m going to do it. Here I go.
What’s good about this story is: the things about abusive relationships that it gets at. Carla, who has recently finished high school, has run away to be with Clark, a charismatic, older man with a temper, who used to be her riding instructor. They live together in a trailer in a country town, and board horses, which is going as badly as the businesses of people who can’t get along with other people tend to. As the story begins, Carla has two worries (or rather, a constant, debilitating stream of worries, with two that stand out as most urgent). One: Flora the goat, who is her only real friend, has gone missing. Two: Mrs Jamieson, their neighbour, whose husband Carla helped nursed until his recent death, has returned from overseas.
This second point is catastrophic, because Clark has conceived a heinous scheme to extort money from Mrs Jamieson. In Carla’s desperation to please Clark, she made up a dirty story about the late Mr Jamieson, and Clark (who is, after all, living with a near-schoolgirl himself) coached her intently to elaborate it, until it took on a life of its own:
All this was because of what she had told him—things she could not now retract or deny.
… in one part of her mind it was true: she saw the randy old man, the bump he made in the sheet, bedridden, almost beyond speech but proficient in sign language, indicating his desire, trying to nudge and finger her into complicity, into obliging stunts and intimacies. (Her refusal a necessity, but also, perhaps, strangely, slightly disappointing to Clark.)
Carla’s attempts to placate Clark have in fact inflamed him. She is now intolerably implicated in something diabolical. At the same time, she begins to have a terrible suspicion that the disappearance of Flora is not coincidental. In fact, it may have been her own preference for Flora that has sealed Flora’s fate.
This is the devastating ham-sandwichiness of this story. Munro diagnoses the profound disempowerment that the combination of poverty and patriarchy can produce in a young woman. She tracks with terrible clarity the cycle of appeasement and escalation in an abusive relationship, by which all compass of normality is lost. It is precisely the quietness of the prose that allows the emotion to land so hard – the way that the voice of the narrative disappears into character and situation, which is so easy to mistake for artless, when in fact it is masterful.
Belinda Rule is a Melbourne writer of fiction and poetry. She has received a fellowship to Squaw Valley Community of Writers, USA, a Copyright Agency Limited Creative Industries Career Fund grant, and is a past winner of the John Masefield Poetry Prize. A residency is planned for 2014 at Bundanon Trust. Some places her work has appeared are Meanjin, Eureka Street, Westerly, Sleepers Almanac, Famous Reporter, Cordite Poetry Review and Best Australian Poems. barkingmouthdog.com