At a recent book fair in Toronto, I chatted with a woman who wrote YA zombie novels. She told me she reads mostly horror fiction, and that she found mainstream Canadian literature “boring.” When she asked who my favourite writers were, I had to admit – a little sheepishly – that Alice Munro is near, or at, the top of the list. Instead of yawning, she made clear she saw Munro as the Grand Exception: “You can hate country music,” she said, “but then there’s Patsy Cline.”
Now that she has won the highest profile literary award in the world, Munro is not just in a category unto herself, she is an inarguable part of Canadian identity, like universal health care and cultural defensiveness. (Atwood, the only other possible contender to this national status, is too wildly inconsistent when it comes to quality of output; if Munro is Patsy Cline, Atwood is Guided By Voices.)
Due to a combination of age, ill health, and perhaps a feeling that she has finally exhausted her imaginative resources – a feeling that her brilliant 2012 collection Dear Life ought to have squelched – Munro has said she has retired from writing stories. She has threatened to leave the scene before, only to start popping up in The New Yorker and elsewhere after a brief pause, but this time it feels final.
Family Furnishings, then, is not merely a chance for Munro’s publishers to cash in on her 2013 Nobel Prize win (and all power to them). It is – at least until the inevitable, trunk-sized Collected Stories appears – an opportunity to examine more closely the last contributions to an oeuvre that, like one of her stories, seems placid and boringly consistent on the surface, but is actually packed tight with complexity, unexpected shifts and reversals, painful insights, hilarious jabs at human vanity, and frequent displays of virtuosity that are almost criminally casual.
The book draws from the collections that followed 1996’s Selected Stories:The Love of a Good Woman; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Runaway; The View from Castle Rock; Too Much Happiness; and Dear Life. Given the remarkably low number of duds Munro has penned over the decades, and how relatively well-crafted even those few duds tend to be, it’s hard to raise much of a stink over what has been included. Okay: the title story from Too Much Happiness, a fictionalized account of an episode in the life of 19th-century Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalesky, feels thoroughly researched, densely constructed, but imaginatively flat – and even a little conventional, given the current mania for turning real historical lives into stately fiction. Meanwhile, “Fiction,” a clear standout from that same collection, and a story that follows few obvious conventions, is bafflingly absent.
The stories that are here, however, represent what Munro has done with her work in the past two decades, and that has been both to delve deeper into her own past, and, more significantly, to get darker in terms of themes and how she tackles them. In “Jakarta,” a character talking about her pianist mother says that the older woman played “until she was nearly ninety years old and lost her marbles.” She immediately apologizes: “Excuse me … but you do get rather nonchalant about things.” Similarly, Munro has grown nonchalant about death, violence, and madness. You can’t always tell, beginning one of these stories, which characters will make it to the end with their faculties intact – or even with their life.
Jane Smiley, in her introduction, offers the usual portrait of Munro as an exceedingly wise writer whose imaginative sympathies approach the supernatural. (“As a reader and as a writer, I embrace every phrase and every observation almost without being able to help myself, because every one seems as true and as involving as can be.”) Which is not wrong, though it downplays the cutting wit and downright cold-heartedness that transform Munro’s stories from exquisite character studies into blade-sharp visions of brutality, tragedy, failure, or simple disappointment. “My Mother’s Dream,” about a young war widow who is unable to cope with her newborn baby and very nearly kills it with sleeping pills, is just as visceral and agonizing as any tale of the undead.
Unlike many of her male contemporaries, who have been praised for their toughness while being utterly sentimental about their own masculinity, late Munro spares no one and nothing. One sentence from the story “Family Furnishings” is practically a Munro story in miniature: “After their short, happy marriage they were sent to separate cemeteries to lie beside their first, more troublesome partners.”
Atwood is notoriously capable of similar cold-bloodedness, but often twists the knife with a little too much self-aware campiness, betraying her own desire to be admired for it. Munro, typically, is much more ambivalent, and often grapples in her fiction with the betrayals she, as a writer who draws heavily on her own life and memories, has performed over and over again. “What makes you think you have the right to run down decent people?” one narrator’s father demands to know.
In Munro’s world, not even a medal bestowed by a group of well-meaning Swedes can expiate the sins of being a writer, of getting above herself and running down decent people. It’s something close to tragic that she plans to sin no more.