Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995 – 2014, by Alice Munro, Alfred A Knopf, 640 pp, $30, ISBN: 978-1101874103
“The banality would make you weep,” Alice Munro once wrote about the flat, expansive Ontario landscape in which her life’s work has been so firmly rooted. The oversized environment of big skies and “brown oceanic waves of dry country” make her characters seasick with a particular kind of mundane gothic. It’s the straight roads. Straight fields of corn. Frozen lakes and time-trapped winters. Fictional locations like Walley are neatly arranged in star-shaped lines radiating out from the courthouse at the centre of a hexagonal town square. And the inhabitants speak of great happiness and great tragedy in the same straight lines, often scarcely distinguishing between them, hardly ever varying the Huron County tone of functional politeness.
The twenty-four selected stories in Family Furnishings cover the Nobel laureate’s last twenty years of writing, in which the autobiographical and the factual have always ranked as the key ingredients. Her ability to weave actual events, both shocking and plain, into her fiction is what emerges with the most enduring authenticity in this collection. In fact, it is often the shocking incident half-concealed alongside daily life that makes her work all the more surprising with each reading.
Now in her eighty-fourth year, Munro, often compared to Chekhov, has recently announced her intention to resign from writing, giving this sizeable collection an even greater air of wrapping up, a poignant sense that her work is nearing its completion after forty years of creating stories (her one novel is regarded more as a collection of stories) in which the exotic has never been any more treasured than the ordinary.
In a foreword to the collection, Jane Smiley describes the paradox in Munro’s writing as, “simultaneously strange and down to earth, daring and straightforward”. Laid out in the chronological order in which the stories were published, Family Furnishings reveals Munro’s lifelong fascination for the mundane and the freakish. Her characters, often taken from life, often drawn with autobiographical authority, seem to live in a kind of reality where the extreme facts co-exist in the same non-hysterical breath with the most banal.
Talk of scrubbing a floor, for example, is given a strange parity with the disposal of a murdered man’s body in “The Love of a Good Woman”, the opening story in this collection. The discovery of the body in the lake is described through the innocent gaze of a group of young boys who hardly understand the true import of the events, only the unforgettable underwater image of the dead man’s arm, as though he is waving. Munro’s great skill here, as in so much of her work, is the conscious undervaluation and negative exaggeration in which she draws the reader’s innocence into this closeness of extremes.
In “Dimensions”, where a young woman tries to come to terms with a shocking family tragedy in which a father kills his three children, we again see the trademark Munro approach of mixing up the ordinary with the appalling:
A trickle of pink foam came out from under the boy’s head, near the ear. It did not look like blood at all, but like the stuff you skim off the strawberries when you’re making jam.
It is precisely this sheer domestic interpretation of the gothic which shakes up the lives of Munro’s protagonists. The freak events of nature, so often juxtaposed alongside moments of great luck or great failure, make the life lines come out from the page with exemplary clarity.
The power of Munro’s fiction comes directly from that flatness of life which she describes with such careful devotion. Like Willa Cather, who claimed to make new sentence forms to portray the landscape of Nebraska, Munro has used the Huron county geography to explain the world view of her characters. She has never attempted to enhance the straight lines. She has never attempted to bully the landscape into anything like glowing writing, giving it instead the first hand fidelity of witness testimony.
Then there was silence, the air like ice. Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling. (Dear Life)
AS Byatt argues that Munro’s stories contain as much life as most novels and that she has changed the possibilities of short fiction by making it new and entirely her own. “She never shouts or shows off or flirts with her readers,” says Byatt. “She tells the world she sees – a world at first glance, of dailiness – and makes it endlessly new and interesting, full of beauty and terror.”
What drew Munro to writing as a young woman were authors of the American South like Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter and Flannery O’Connor. In a Paris Review interview in 1994, Munro said that these writers really moved her because they gave her “a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal”. They also showed her “that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well”.
Munro’s Irish and Scottish ancestors settled in the Ottawa valley in Canada in the early nineteenth century in response to the depression after the Napoleonic wars. Her paternal family were Scots Presbyterians and her mother’s Anglicans from Co Wicklow. Bad feeling between Protestants and Catholics was very much part of the social norm of her childhood and the Orange Order and “King Billy’s parade”, a strong feature of Huron County attitudes, is referred to in her fiction. One of her ancestors left property to his daughter on condition that she never marry a Catholic.
Much of what Munro writes is autobiographical, and where stories are invented they carry a core of truth in them which owes much to the way in which she sources her material. The stories that she herself has described as “closer to the truth than usual” include “Dear Life”, “Working for a Living” and “Home”. We can glimpse Munro’s own life through these stories written in the first person, how she observes the small town people of Ontario (in particular the town of Wingham, where she grew up), which she describes as “dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”.
The title story, “Family Furnishings”, recounts an event when a child is not allowed into the room where her mother lies dying of injuries sustained after a kerosene lamp exploded in her hands. “You wouldn’t want to see her, if you knew what she looked like now,” a grandmother tells the weeping girl. “But she would want to see me,” cries the child. The accident is mentioned by Munro in a brief, almost casual manner but its effect at the heart-rending core of the story is to explore a harsh autobiographical turning point for her. Alfrida, a lively newspaper columnist on the housewives’ page, comes to visit her relations in a small rural Ontario town and impresses the young narrator with her glamorous career. Some years later, when the narrator visits her idealised cousin, it quickly becomes clear that Alfrida is far from glamorous; if anything she appears as a sad, somewhat desperate character who has “lost all importance in my life”.
The story is revealing in terms of Murno’s own life. It is the manner of the aunts’s death that ultimately shows the narrator that her life work is to be a writer.
And the minute that I heard it, something happened. It was as if a trap had snapped shut to hold these words in my head … she would want to see me.
By publishing this tragic story, the writer has committed an act of betrayal of her cousin, causing her lifelong distress as a result. Is this the price to be paid for choosing the career of a writer seems to be the question Munro is asking (she herself was shunned by her neighbours and friends in Wingham for writing about what they felt were their private affairs).
The author’s decision to mention this shocking accident at the end of “Family Furnishings” in a passing manner is all the more remarkable since it is told in the same breath as the description of the scraping and stacking the dishes and the smell of pipe smoke coming from Alfrida’s male friend – a vivid illustration of Munro’s literary style, which, in a CBC radio interview, she describes as “Canadian Gothic”.
Munro portrays rural southwestern Ontario as a place of dispossession, where people have escaped poverty, famine or religious persecution only to end up in a place where they fall victim to untreated diseases and sexual oppression and where lives are disfigured in terrible accidents. Blending the gruesome with domestic themes, the stories cover a huge canvas of human experience, including marital breakdown, mother and daughter clashes and the birth and death of love.
Munro passes little judgment on the actions of her characters and this can have both a heartening and disturbing effect on the reader. The stories may often appear unspectacular, as if nothing much is happening , but they have the effect of illuminating the great forces of underestimated love. Characters may appear unlikeable or villainous, but Munro leaves it up to the reader to decide.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” tells the story of Fiona and Grant, who have been married for forty-five years. He has not always been a faithful husband, but he reconnects with his wife after she starts to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Fiona goes to live in a nursing home, where she falls in love with a resident named Aubrey. When Aubrey leaves the nursing home Fiona becomes distraught and starts to decline. When Grant takes the selfless decision to bring Aubrey back to the nursing home Fiona’s affections revert to her husband. The title “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” comes from a children’s song about a bear that goes over the mountain and what he sees when he gets there is the other side of the mountain. Linking the song with a story about the unavoidability of aging seems to take all the humour and frothiness out of the verse. If we are the bear, Munro is suggesting, in fearless acknowledgment of her own transience, once we get to the top we will see that it’s it’s all downhill from there on.
When it comes to her literary material, Munro says “It always turns up.” Living in a small town, she seems closer to the terrible incidents to which she is attracted as a writer. “In a city you mainly hear stories from your own sort of people” and “I wouldn’t have picked up all the threads in the same way”. Munro’s biographer Robert Thacker has found many archival newspaper articles which she has turned into fiction. Among the headlines are “Hand nearly severed”, “Recluse dies” and “Lamb born with seven legs and two tails”.
One of Munro’s key literary assistants has been an old friend, Reg Thompson, the librarian in Goderich who, in his spare time, has provided her with a great deal of background information for some of the events described in her work. As it turns out, many of these “gothic” details were quite specifically selected by Munro to suit the design of the stories. What becomes clear is the nature of Munro’s research, a technique of carefully selecting material from real life to fit in with her literary vision.
“Sometimes Alice is looking for definite mechanical details,” Thompson told me when I went to meet him in Goderich, not far from the Clinton home of Munro. “I didn’t want Alice nailed on a detail” he says when the famed fact-checkers at The New Yorker got to work on a story. He outlined her methodology.
“She wanted a man to be killed in a piano factory for her story ‘Carried Away’,” Thompson revealed. “And because she wanted the description to be factual, though disguised, it involved a very long search since it was before the days of the internet.” By chance Thompson then came across a description in a biography he was reading at the time of a man being pulled into a machine. “I immediately rang Alice and said ‘I’ve got your decapitation if you can accept a diagonal cut.’”
Munro and Thompson struck up a close working friendship when it turned out that she was named after his Aunt Alice, a family relationship which gave him a great position of trust, in which she came to rely on him for much of the material she needed for her work. Indeed, she thanks him and dedicates some of her work to Thompson “for his inspired and ingenious research”. They first met at a debate in the 1970s over the banning of books in Huron County schools. Books such as The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, The Diviners by Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro’s own collection Lives of Girls and Women were all on the hit list.
“Accidents are legion here,” says Thompson who went on to share his interest in collecting newspaper clippings of catastrophes with Alice Munro’s late husband, Gerald Fremlin. Thompson kept extensive files on ghoulish incidents for Munro for select from.”Gerry would say how they seemed to happen in cycles. For example, newspaper articles about people found standing on their heads after they’d fallen through a floor, or getting caught up in the belt of a threshing machine.” With a keen understanding of the kind of tragic facts that fascinated Munro, Thompson in a way has taken on the vicarious role of the writer’s eyes and ears, collecting these macabre news events with all the close details, such as the victim’s arm continuing to rotate until the threshing machine is switched off.
Thompson says over his years he has never seen a letter of complaint that newspaper reporting was insensitive. One report describes a woman “literally dashed to pieces”, when her hoopskirt was caught by a departing train. Another clipping talks of a victim of fire being “burned to a crisp. The only thing left was her shoe buckles.”
The search for gruesome particulars is complemented by that for more commonplace facts of life in and around Huron County. “Alice will want to know details of what people were wearing at weddings long ago,” Thompson tells me. “I’d find her newspaper write-ups like ‘the bride wore a fawn suit, bone accessories and Ophelia roses’. In those times it was before the white wedding and people would be married by 6.30 am in the Anglican church and then immediately seen off on the early train to Hamilton,” he says.
While searching for information, Thompson would regularly find himself attracted to advertisements and other articles which might be of use to Munro in her work, details such as the mayor being lambasted over the state of the drains. “The story might carry on running until the following week. And then I’d read about a murder and years after I’ll encounter the same people, like the daughter of the murderer and think about what became of them. Then I’d share these bizarre happenings with Alice.”
Gerald Fremlin was also a key literary supporter of Munro’s and having grown up in the area had a huge insider knowledge of the county. A National Geographic contributor, he took great interest not only in the social trends but also in the topographical features of the Huron landscape. As a non-driver, Munro often relied on her husband to bring her out in his red pick-up truck, surveying the landscape – the morains, eskers and drumlins which all appear in her writing. After her first marriage broke down, Alice went to live in the Fremlin family home, in the small town of Clinton, Ontario where she still lives. In an article in The Guardian newspaper she says:
I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Wal-Mart, and Canadian Tire. I speak the language.
What comes through most clearly in this collection is the strength of Munro’s observations, her way of extracting from the local information available to her an entirely unique way of seeing the world without the interference of emotion or sentiment. It may be strange to think of the writer in her rural Canadian setting, with her husband and her friend, two men close to her, literary accomplices going out to search for “gothic” incidents on her behalf, two men reading the world with the Nobel laureate’s instincts in their minds as they leaf through the newspapers and encounter the vivid, undistilled tragedy and luck of life. But as a collection Family Furnishings remains far more than the gathering of the mundane and the freakish, so much more than the collation of everyday life. It is, of course, the literary obsession with which Alice Munro has converted the sensational details of Huron County life which makes her work so remarkable. She makes us so much more than voyeurs of the tragic and the banal. She takes the headlines out of the macabre, the glamour out of the ghoulish, turning them back into the real, the ordinary, the truth.
Mary Rose Doorly is a journalist and author.