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Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014
Alice Munro
Knopf, 2014
640 pp., 30.00

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Linda McCullough Moore

Alice Munro's Overarching Tale

Here is living that we recognize.

My first impulse after reading Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995-2014, by Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, was to reread the six collections from which these two dozen stories were chosen. But it's a slippery slope. I mean, how arbitrary to not again revisit—multiple readings of each collection surely warrant the redundancy—all 15 collections, beginning with Dance of the Happy Shades, first published in 1968. Here is the stuff of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, that classic treatise on the inevitability of one thing's leading to another: each of Munro's stories serving as a reminder of my need for more.

And so it is that this recurring prompting leads me to a new and I think warranted conclusion: the reader who has missed Alice Munro by saying he doesn't read short stories might now be in the market for a new excuse. The longer I read her work, the more I think she is a novelist, in the truest sense, and with her retirement—imposed now by declining health—her novel is complete … in 15 volumes. There is a sense in which the work of Alice Munro is neither unrelated narratives nor disconnected stories, but rather parts making up a whole.

"And what is the plot of this novel?" the marketing department must immediately ask. They do get all the speaking parts these days, and surely won't accept the one word, "Life," in answer. Happily, one of her stories might be made to answer nicely. If we can see worlds in grains of sand, surely we might enter Munro's epic novel through a single story—say "The Love of a Good Woman," the first in this new collection—and allow a few excerpts from this piece to initiate us into the larger story Munro tells.

This tale begins where all good sagas do, in a place "that had never amounted to much"—our common home—but, she tells us, "even in the millpond there is a good deal of force in the water this time of year." She adds that the river can be "counted on to sweep off and deposit everywhere a good number of surprising or cumbersome or bizarre or homey objects." And so life does what it will do, but in this writer's hands the details reek and rattle, tickle and alarm, down to the very fingernails of a corpse found in the water, whose nails are "all like neat little faces, with their intelligent everyday sort of greeting, their sensible disowning of their circumstances."

Munro's characters—be they hardscrabble farmers or world-famed mathematicians, modest housewives or heinous criminals—will, for reasons they can't name, inevitably do more than just watch the waters passing; for reasons sometimes known to God alone, they will jump in and, if blessed, emerge, "ice daggers hooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the top of their skulls from inside," feeling "the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true." Even at those times when there is no intentional plunging, it may be that "[e]vil grabs us when we are sleeping; pain and disintegration lie in wait. Animal horrors …. The comfort of bed and the cow's breath, the pattern of stars at night—all that can get turned on its head in an instant." And our reactions are as varied as our most singular selves. In this first story, one man, unblessed, "looked as if he had caught hold of an electric wire and begged pardon—who of?—that his body was given over to this stupid catastrophe." Surely character is fate, Munro will have us believe. And in the end, "You couldn't say they had chosen the wrong lives or chosen against their will or not understood their choices. Just that they had not understood how time would pass and leave them not more but maybe a little less than they used to be." And so will the drab quotidian and the wild unfettered both assail a person with no by-your-leave, and so will that person soldier on but "with less and less irony as time goes on."

Very often Munro's stories cover many decades, she in her wisdom knowing that our human stories are not vignettes and anecdotes.

Throughout the telling of this overarching tale, from one story to the next, Munro's characters neither seek nor find salvation in any source beyond their canny wits and pluck, or, sometimes, just their dogged way of being. A man relies upon himself, a woman even more so, in the end a life's resolve springing often from nothing more than some sensible accommodation. But if there is no God, neither is there insulting platitude, plastic triumph of the human spirit, presumption of some basic goodness, manufactured for the occasion. Here is living that we recognize—with rueful smiles, regret, embarrassment, a long familiarity—but Munro's brilliant working of our inner lives will always offer more. There is writing that helps us know, and there is writing that makes us feel known: who we really are, our complicated histories, the lives we've tried our best to run with. But Munro moves us beyond this understanding. We can and should attempt to understand each other, these stories say, to bother to discover what matters most. And if each story bears such wisdom, opening a keen—sometimes terrible, sometimes downright joyful—knowing of such truth, then the stories taken all together make a fuller case, each bit of evidence, each witness, filling in a puzzle piece, until the whole is done, the novel satisfying and complete. Munro is smart enough to know we must come at this thing from every angle that there is.

It must be asked, of course, might every story writer then be named a novelist? Can every writer of short fiction point to work whose every thread is woven into one grand design, the stories resonating and reverberating, brilliantly informing one another? Of course not. (William Trevor is the only other writer coming immediately to mind.) More often the experience of reading short fiction is a disjointed, rather jerky, scattershot affair, each story attempting the creation of a universe for its own—too often superficial—inhabiting. This reading is dispiriting in the extreme. The reader finds so little satisfaction in so many stories because they arrive without context; the world is never fully drawn; the sentiments are thin; and neither the reader nor the writer can be made to care. Life in Munro's telling exists in some larger framework. Half a century is a snapshot of the larger picture; different characters and countries, different circumstances, do not exist in isolation. The reader moves among the stories caught up in a larger current. (And if we must mix metaphors to say it's so, we only demonstrate that telling the whole story is one complicated enterprise.)

Capable of running to 75 pages, a Munro story is like a baseball game: it takes as long as it takes, length determined by the story told, some secrets in life blurted out, some cossetted, some betrayed by circumstance, some intimated over time. Very often Munro's stories cover many decades, she in her wisdom knowing that our human stories are not vignettes and anecdotes. A moment in time—often some mistake, a deception, a whim, a misunderstanding—can set in course events that determine largely how a life might go. And these are stories worth the telling. Life does what it does to us, but that is always superseded by who and what we are, and Munro is never stingy or withholding. She doesn't make us guess and wonder. She does the work the writer's meant to do; she does her part, as fully in each story as in the larger whole.

Surely writing fiction, short or long, is not an occupation but a way of being in the world, a way of honoring life by paying attention. There is a section in one of her later collections, The View from Castle Rock, in which Munro tells some details of her own life—not all, not completely factual, but some fairly faithful to her own life experience—and the reader stands stunned at what can only be called the alchemy that has transfigured these slim facts into a hundred different stories. Munro has paid attention, looked with an unblinking eye, refused to shield herself from any thought or feeling in the service of her craft. This costs a writer something; let us not pretend otherwise. Her writing bears the mark of nothing trite or trivial, nothing rash or slight. Munro has kept the faith, has stayed the course across the span of half a century, resorting to neither fad nor gimmick, indulging in no stories—now so common—that feel like little more than silly writing exercises. The title of her last collection speaks her subject's name, Dear Life, just as it sounds the tender salutation of a letter she has written to the world.

So what of this new collection then? It's wonderful, plain and simple. But it isn't the whole story. And that's the good news. The uninitiated may start here with the happy assurance that it is but the white and glistening tip of one ageless and rock-solid iceberg. We ignore it to our peril.

Oh, and about the novel thing, I could be wrong. (There's precedent.) Munro may not be a novelist, but only perhaps the greatest story writer on the planet. It's increasingly hard to find nay-sayers on that score. But, I insist, please don't take my word for it that Munro has given to the world a novel. Read these 15 collections of her work yourself. Life can recommend few rarer pleasures. Then, you decide.

Linda McCullough Moore's most recent book is The Book of Not So Common Prayer (Abingdon Press), a collection of essays on communion with the Triune God. Her latest fiction is a book of linked stories, This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon (Levellers Press).

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