Postmodern "Piecing": Alice Munro's Contingent Ontologies

By Nunes, Mark | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Postmodern "Piecing": Alice Munro's Contingent Ontologies


Nunes, Mark, Studies in Short Fiction


One of the inherent difficulties in approaching the postmodern is the attempt to establish or comprehend a terrain that challenges the notion of stable and comprehensive systems. One might conceivably argue that postmodernism doesn't exist, to the extent that the "ism" implies a determined, determinable movement, approach, or heading. Rather, the postmodern addresses, in Derrida's term, the "other heading," an aporetic movement of "post"-ing beyond totalizing systems of determination, definition, closure, and certainty.(1) Yet "Postmodernism" clearly does exist. Our readerly expectations suggest that "Postmodern literature" signifies intrusion and disruption, fragments without wholes, digressive excess, and various other affronts to narrative convention: in short, a definite/defined style to which we could compare various authors and determine their degree of fit. Occasionally, one finds, however, an author like Alice Munro, who defies these margins of "Postmodernism" while raising the same challenges of adetermination, overflow, and the denial of totalizing narrative. Her writing, she has noted, captures the "funny jumps" of living: bumps that unsettle the narrative frame. But rather than showing a narrative unravel, Munro often focuses on what holds a story together. Her writing calls attention to itself not to underscore disruption or narrative excess, but to note the narrative strategies--the conditions and contingencies--that allow the pieces to come together.

Munro's use of textile crafts provides an occasion for examining this alternate version of a postmodern narrative. The short story collection Friend of My Youth provides a wide array of references, both actual and metaphorical, to seams, embroideries, and appliques. She appropriates textile crafts, and specifically patchwork "piecing," as a thematic reminder of her own narrative technique. In doing so, she places herself in a complex tradition that pairs women's writing with knitting, stitching, and quilting.(2) As Elaine Showalter notes, for the past 20 years, several women authors have used quilting and "piecing" as an image of a feminist postmodern: an intertextuality that emphasizes fragmentation and narrative proliferation (Sister's 161-62). As a metaphor for narrative, quilting/piecing destabilizes notions of unity, coherence, and balance; it becomes a source of disruption for patriarchal narrative structure. I will argue, however, that while Munro's stories call attention to narrative fragments and multiple tellings, her narrative structure does not reflect a disruptive/eruptive postmodernism. Instead, one equally finds in her use of "piecing" traces of another tradition in women's writing in which quilting functioned as an icon for the recuperation of fragmented traditions: the coming together of disparate elements into a "heated" whole (Showalter, "Piecing?" 225-27). In this usage, piecing functions not as a feminine disruption, but as a female "peacing" (Hedges 350). For Munro, however, "putting pieces together" never suggests a pre-existent "whole" toward which the narrative strains. Instead, this postmodern piecing/"peacing" functions as a conditional, contingent arrangement and the basis for "metastable" ontologies.

Ildiko Carrington describes Munro's narrative as a strategy of "controlling the uncontrollable"; she notes that making sense is always a matter of control, yet this control is always suspect, temporary, and ultimately a sign of disruptive forces beyond narrative ability (12-15). One can see this process at work in Friend of My Youth, but the emphasis on a strategy of "piecing" foregrounds a constructive process that precludes either a return to wholeness or a perennial condition of disruption. Instead, Munro's emphasis on contingencies derails the notion of master narratives by showing the means by which any given arrangement of facts results in the emergence of meaning. In Carrington's view, this suspect narrative control is an attempt "to get at what is really there," making the narrator an approximation of a transcendent "arranger" (97).

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