Review: Alice Munro’s “Family Furnishings”

by Miles Raymer


Family Furnishings is my second foray into the mind of Alice Munro, but will certainly not be my last. Munro writes the best prose––and the best short stories––of any modern author with whom I am familiar. Her disarmingly prosaic and delectably mysterious tales unveil the hidden meanings lurking within the mundane corners of everyday existence.

After finishing this thick collection, which contains highlights from Munro’s career from 1995 through 2014, I suspect her writing might be better digested in smaller chunks, or read more slowly than my usual pace. These stories are deceptively dense; the writing isn’t difficult, but if you don’t pay attention to every detail, you will miss something essential. I was fortunate to have read some of the stories before, and certainly got more out of them the second time around. Now that I’ve delved a bit deeper into Munro’s work, I think I’ve begun to grasp some of the overarching themes that make her writing so powerful.

Most of Munro’s characters are lower- to middle-class people living in unexceptional mid-20th century settings: farmers, teachers, laborers, business owners, husbands, wives, children. A solid portion of Munro’s narrative alchemy derives from her ability to portray such people as accepting their lot in life while also being quietly subversive. Munro’s characters persist not by taming the rush of life’s inevitable misfortunes, but by slowly comprehending their finer qualities:

For everybody, though, the same thing. Evil grabs us when we are sleeping; pain and disintegration lie in wait. Animal horrors, all worse than you can imagine beforehand. The comforts of bed and the cows’ breath, the pattern of the stars at night––all that can get turned on its head in an instant. And here she was, here was Enid, working her life away pretending it wasn’t so. Trying to ease people. Trying to be good. (35).

People are always trying to “be good” (or at least to “be themselves”) in a historical context. Munro’s life began at the outset of the Great Depression and has continued through the first decade of the 21st century, so it makes sense that her writing exhibits a preoccupation with the tension between rural and urban communities, with the essential differences between provincial and globalized cognition. This transition from local to global consciousness was the great leap of the late-20th century, but Munro’s writing captures a time before the Internet, before the omnipresent deluge of information from every corner of Earth, when small communities constituted their own little universes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recurring standoff between “town” and “country”:

In those days people in town did generally look upon the people from the country as more apt to be slow-witted, tongue-tied, uncivilized, than themselves, and somewhat more docile in spite of their strength. And farmers saw people who lives in towns as having an easy life and being unlikely to survive in situations calling for fortitude, self-reliance, hard work. They believed this in spite of the fact that the hours men worked at factory jobs or in stores were long and the wages low, in spite of the fact that many houses in town had no running water or flush toilets or electricity. But the people in town had Saturday or Wednesday afternoons and the whole of Sundays off and that was enough to make them soft. (368)

Having experienced both settings intimately, Munro is champion of neither; she prefers to demonstrate how communities fail to understand one another, as well as to shed light on the brief moments where mutual apprehension is somehow achieved.

The rules of existence were not so clear in pre-globalized times of transition, and Munro’s stories are therefore suffused with an anticipation of something like magic. In the absence of any undergirding world order with which to categorize or justify breaches in tradition and etiquette, Munro’s characters are responsible for conjuring their own explanations for the events that shape their lives. Eschewing resentment and nihilism, they cultivate hardy and utterly unpretentious demeanors with which to weather the world’s many trials.

All of this hinges on the element of Munro’s talent that is perhaps most eminent: her taciturn but staunch avowal that no one has full access to the melange of prefigured circumstances, choices, and random happenings that determine life’s course. Human experience occurs within spheres of knowledge that are limited by the implacable structures of our body-minds and the greater workings of a world we can only partially internalize, one breathing sliver at a time. Munro is the battering ram splintering the illusion that we can grasp ourselves and our lives with certainty:

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see. (573)

Human life is ineluctably haunted by judgments made “from vantage points” unavailable to us. It is a necessity of both survival and sanity that we ignore this reality, but we also reflect and learn more effectively when we take it into account. So we celebrate the work of creatures like Alice Munro, who wake us up to from time to time. “It is forbidden for us to know…” she writes, “what fate has in store for me, or for you––” (167). Forbidden to know, yes––but not to speculate, not to dream. It is through these speculations, these dreams, these tireless lines of inquiry, that the stories of ourselves take form. And it is not the strict veracity of these stories that ultimately matters, but their resonance with our past selves, present struggles, and hopes for the future.

Cut off from full knowledge, we are not hopeless, not entirely blind. We are impaired. Life is a compromised state, always contingent, always edged toward defeat and death. But it is not beyond us to watch and listen to our lives as they pass us by, nor is it impossible to build coherent structures of meaning.

It was not until now, not until this moment, that she had seen so clearly that she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life. She had accepted her marriage as one big change, but not as the last one.

So, nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for. Nothing secret, or strange.

Pay attention to this, she thought. She had a dramatic notion of getting down on her knees. This is serious. (212-3)

How are we to seek such moments of fleeting clarity? We cannot. But we can notice when they come upon us, can wrestle them from the river of consciousness, and tuck them away for those final moments of existence, when we face our mortality and wonder what life was to us, to anyone. Nothing, of course. But we will tell ourselves otherwise. And if we are very lucky, that final hallucination will be a good one.

Rating: 9/10