Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Magic of Alice Munro: Family Furnishings: Selected Stories--1995-2014

Back in May, when I participated in the Alice Munro Symposium at the University of Ottawa, I asked Munro's U.S. publisher and U.S. agent if there were plans to publish a Collected Stories of Alice Munro. They said there were so many stories (139) a single volume would be too big, and multi-volume sets were not great sellers. However, they did say they were working on a volume of  selected stories published since the 1997 Selected Stories—1968-1994, containing twenty-eight stories from Munro's first seven collections. They said they had a great title for the new volume, Family Furnishings, which was the title of a story that appeared in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in 2001. Family Furnishings: Selected Stories—1995-2014, Munro's final book, if we take her at her word that she has retired, came out in early November in the U.S. It contains twenty-four stories.

Since the table of contents is not posted on Amazon, or anywhere else I can find, as a public service to my readers, here is the TOC of Family Furnishings, including the titles of the volumes where the stories originally appeared in book form.

The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
"The Love of a Good Woman"
"The Children Stay"
"My Mother's Dream"

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)
"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage"
"Family Furnishings"
"Post and Beam"
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain"

Runaway (2004)

The View From Castle Rock (2006)
"The View From Castle Rock"
"Working for a Living"
"Hired Girl"

Too Much Happiness (2009)
"Child's Play"
"Too Much Happiness"

Dear Life" (2012)
"To Reach Japan"
"The Eye"
"Dear Life"

I don't know who was responsible for the selections in Family Furnishings. I suspect Munro, in consultation with her  Knopf editors, made the choices.  Nobody asked me, but I would have made some different choices.  Just to single out two, I would have liked to have seen "Wenlock Edge" from Too Much Happiness and "Corrie" from Dear Life.

Because these stories have all appeared in separate volumes, which were widely reviewed in America, Canada, and England, I did not expect there to be new reviews of Family Furnishings. And indeed, a search of Lexis-Nexis turned up only a brief notice on Kirkus and only full reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle review is by Molly Antopol, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and now a creative writing lecturer at Stanford, author of a collection of stories, The UnAmericans. It is a routine praise  piece, providing no insight other than that Munro disdains literary rules and gives us complicated characters capable of both kindness and cruelty.

David Ulin, book critic for the LA Times, is also at a loss for words in his attempt to account for what makes Munro the great writer she is, content with an agreement with Jane Smiley in the Foreword that Munro's stories promise no drama or transcendence, but rather domestic reflections of reality—whatever that is.  "Such a line between reality and fiction, life and literature," says Ulin, "seems especially the province of the short-story writer, who can work by inference in a way novelists cannot." 

Ulin does not bother to explain what he means by the line between reality and fiction or how inference in the short form walks that line better than the novel.  That would have been helpful.  I do think that Ulin is right when he says that Munro's characters tell stories "not just to mark their passage but also to survive." It is an issue I am exploring in my current essay on Munro as a Scheherazade who has to tell stories or die.  Ulin also says it is Munro's willingness to "blur the line" (the line between reality and fiction?) that is part of "the elusive power" of her later works." But this may be simply because Munro has, at least since The View from Castle Rock, been writing what she has called "not quite stories," but rather memoirs on the borderline of stories.

In her "Foreword," Jane Smiley says Munro is "simultaneously strange and down-to-earth, daring and straightforward" and that in her last six books, she has become more experimental rather than less so. Smiley says that Munro has made something new out of the short story, "using precision of language and complexity of emotion to cut out the relaxed parts of the novel and focus on the essence of transformation."  I like that phrase, but wish that Smiley had talked a bit more about what she mean by "transformation."  Is this the transformation of reality into fiction, the line that Ulin says Munro blurs so brilliantly?  Perhaps.

Smiley says that since Munro's chosen form is the short story, "her overriding theme is brevity—look now, act now, contemplate now, because soon, very soon, this thing that involves you will be over." What is the "theme of brevity"?  That we are poor players who strut and fret and have but short a time on stage? Perhaps she means something similar to what Nadine Gordimer mean by her metaphor of "fireflies" several years ago, which I include in my Short Story Theories collection. I have quoted it before, but here it is again. It's worth repeating:

"Short-story writers always have been subject at the same time  to both a stricter technical discipline and a wider freedom than the novelist.  Short-story writers have known--and solved by nature of their choice of form—what novelists seem to have discovered in despair only now: the strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped by human reality. 
How shall I put it? Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness.  Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be pure of—the present moment."

Smiley joins other writers who vow and declare that they do not understand how Munro does what she does. In a "Page-Turner" piece in which the New Yorker asked several writers what Alice Munro's fiction has meant to them, Julian Barnes said he sometimes tries to work how she does it, but never has succeeded and is happy in the failure. In the same piece, Lorrie Moore says, Munro is "a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do." 

Smiley says her favorite tribute to Munro is by the Canadian writer David Macfarlane, who says that although he has paid "enjoyable close attention" to Alice Munro, he can't quite figure out how she does what she does. "I guess by magic." Macfarlane says he has decided to leave it at that.

Many writers and critics have admitted they are stymied by what makes Alice Munro great, although they all—well almost all—agree that she is. A couple of years ago, Christian Lorentzen, an editor at London Review of Books, received quite a bit of flak from Munro lovers by writing a somewhat caustic review in LRB. 

Several others have reacted to this rare attack on Munro, (see Kyle Minor's riposte in Salon, June 10, 2013) so I won't bother, except to suggest that Lorentzen's objections, in my opinion, boil down to his failure to understand how short stories work.  Basically, his complaint with Munro is her content; in short, her focus on domestic, rural Canadian women bores him or depresses him.  He says his reading of ten of her books over a short period of time left him in a state of "mental torpor" that made him sad with the shabby, grubby world of her stories, as well as her emphasis on the "real," i.e. physical, world she creates. 

What he does not like about her style is her "anti-modernism," her old school realism, her sanding her prose to an "uncommon smoothness." In a cutesy metaphor, he says reading Munro's sentences is "something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: It's a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren't wet."  I am not sure how Lorentzen can criticize Munro's fiction for its grittiness and also for its smoothness. 

But, this is the seeming contradiction that Jane Smiley praises when she says Munro is "simultaneously strange and down-to-earth, daring and straightforward."  This is what David Ulin and many others like about Munro's blurring the line between reality and fiction—indeed what all great fiction does.  This is the magic of Alice Munro. It is the magic I will be trying to  understand in the three essays on Munro I am currently working on.


Keith Hood said...

I'm glad to see "My Mother's Dream" appear in the collection. I've always loved that story. I was recently asked to cite examples of first person omniscient point of view. The novel that immediately came to mind was Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and the short story that immediately came to mind was "My Mother's Dream" by Alice Munro.

Karl said...

In an episode of the 1980s British comedy TV show "The Young Ones," one of the titular twenty-something characters launches into a generation-gap tirade with an elderly man, finishing up by accidentally reversing a classic generation-gap complaint: "and the only reason you don't understand our music is that you don't like it!"

I think there's some wisdom in that bit of comedy. Appreciating something to its fullest depths may require understanding it, but often, and I would say for most people, just plain liking the thing has to come first.

If there's one thing that you've worked to convey in this blog, it's that a good short story will consist of far more that its plot, characters, and writing style. But even knowing and believing that, I think it's only human nature to respond to those elements of a story, and perhaps to form our initial like/don't-like reaction based on them. For me, the great failing of Alice Munro is her characters. I find them humorless, passionless, dreary, lifeless. Her characters may not be the "point" of her stories, but doggone it, I just don't like being around them. Contrast this with Lorrie Moore's characters, whom I generally fall in love with after the first couple of pages. Or Raymond Carver's, who may not be lovable or even likable, but who are passionate beings whose feelings I can't help but care about.

I guess this shows a lack of sophistication in my reading. If I find myself not enjoying a story that I have reason to believe has depth, I should try to withhold judgement on it until I've put some effort into teasing out what a deeper understanding might have to offer. Having read all of this blog's entries on Munro, I plan on reading and rereading more of her stories in the future. It will be interesting to see if I'm now able to get past my initial "don't like," work my way through "understand," and then perhaps even arrive at "like."

Charles E. May said...

Thank you for this comment, Karl. It is an interesting and important question on which I will try to post a short essay in the next couple of months.