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From Munro, lives of Canadian desperation

By Alice Munro
Knopf, 320 pp., $25

She sings of arms and the woman, of voice and voicelessness. She writes the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, whispers of knowledge and its terrible burdens. She is Alice Munro, and in ''Runaway," her tenth collection of stories, she outjoices Joyce and checkmates Chekhov.

Despite Joyce's self-congratulatory declaration that the artist should be like a god removed from his creation, sitting back and paring his fingernails, one always feels his presence, the great power of mind structuring the limited omniscience granted the narrator of a story like ''Araby" or the cosmic ironies leveled at Gabriel Conroy. But Munro is a magician's magician, and she disappears for good after the title page of this volume, or at least after the single common noun that announces each story: ''Chance," for example, or ''Silence," ''Trespasses," ''Tricks." There is, however, no ''Reason" here. Rational though Homo sapiens may be, reason has never been the efficient or final cause of the changing course of a human life -- and in this regard Munro and Chekhov are similar; both believe in coincidence.

But unlike Chekhov's characters, who seem illuminated from the inside by the sun of their creator's love, Munro's characters are buffeted by Alberta clippers. It's hard weather, and it's hard love, all in keeping with these lives of Canadian desperation. Yet nothing in a Munro story ever feels contrived. Her details surface so quietly, emerge so naturally from her characters' observations, that it often takes a second reading to recognize a detail's thematic relevance.

Munro's stories begin quietly, and it's often several pages before we know just who the protagonist is, what the central conflicts might be, how we should position ourselves with respect to this experience. Meaning accumulates in a Munro story, inexorably, like compounded daily interest, slowly at first, then with greater and greater speed, weight, and momentum. But there's really never an explosion of meaning at story's end, even in ''Tricks" or ''Passion," the two stories here that could be called ''epiphanic"; more often, there's an implosion, like a star collapsing, pulling all the matter and meaning of the story back together, pulling us in, too, unable to resist the gravity of a thing with so much mass.

Munro's stories are often praised for their scope and depth, and rightly so. Each of the stories in ''Runaway" contains enough lived life to fill a typical novel, and reading them is to become immersed in the concerns and worlds of their various characters. It's hard to imagine a younger writer achieving such stories, since the weight of decades past is so present in them. Indeed, the temporal touchstone for the collection as a whole is 1965, which represents a period of limited opportunity for women, a period when ''choices were simply easier for men, most of whom would find women glad to marry them. Not so the other way around." Interesting bit of social history, we might be tempted to say, but Munro doesn't let us off so easily. In the collection's first and title story, a brutal Web surfer named Clark (that hard ''k" is no accident) keeps both his wife, Carla, and his neighbor Sylvia under a carefully callused thumb. Because it is set in the present, this story severely qualifies whatever progress women have made in the last 40 years, dimming the optimism we might wish to bring to the subsequent stories. The next story, ''Chance," takes place in 1965, and the social mores of that period remain central to each of the stories that follow, including the collection's eighth and final story, ''Powers," which begins in 1927, jumps to crucial scenes in 1968 and ''the early seventies," and finally spins to a stop at some undefined later period, presumably the mid-'80s or early '90s.

Munro's heroines chafe against cultural repression, and the central tensions in these stories are between voice and voicelessness. These are not, however, feminist screeds; these are stories about the burdens of knowledge and the difficult choices people make.

Nancy, the protagonist of ''Powers," in some ways serves as a stand-in for the writer herself: ''What she believes she is doing," Munro writes, ''what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it." But when Nancy finally gets the look she deserves, it will be in the form of a present-tense dream that reveals the past (or one version of it), even as she surrenders her life on earth, and we will learn that ''she does know something, but she is trying not to know."

Munro's stories have always been studies in surprise, sorrow, and accommodation; her steady promise, that we could find this triptych in every human life, if only we were granted sufficient moral courage and clarity of vision. As Robin, the protagonist of ''Tricks," reflects, ''Something --though not what she was expecting -- had changed her life." The same thing could be said for all of the women whose lives are presented here. Alice Munro sings, and her women are heroic. They endure the lives produced by their choices and the fates, and they endure in the mind of the reader.

David Thoreen is chair of the English Department at Assumption College in Worcester. His recent poetry appears in Slate and is forthcoming in Natural Bridge.

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