Alice Munro, “Too Much Happiness”
Too Much Happiness
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
Alice Munro is one of those rare literary icons who has the distinct reputation as a crossover writer. She is admired by academics for her literary sensibilities, the mainstream for her easy-to-identify-with characters, and fiction writers who continue to be amazed at her ability to construct a strong story out of what Hollywood would consider to be the uneventful and ordinary—an impossible judgment to be made after reading “Free Radicals” and “Dimensions” in Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness.
Given the fact that short-story collections are not as popular as novels in the publishing world, Munro’s continuing popularity is indeed an enigma wrapped up in a mystery. Her loyal followers are always excited when a new collection of stories arrives at a bookstore or on Amazon. And they will not be disappointed in Too Much Happiness.
I suppose I’ll be violating all kinds of Writing-101 standards here by jumping in and taking Munro to task for attempting to write a kind of shorter version of Doctor Zhivago in “Too Much Happiness,” the last story in the collection. Munro tries too hard in this story to fictionally recreate Sophia Kovalevsky, a nineteenth century Russian mathematician, novelist (treated as an afterthought), and strong-willed precursor to the age of all those twentieth century feminists who were able to break the glass ceiling of male-dominated professions.
In an afterward to the story, Munro admits being captivated by all the research she did. However, I literally felt I was on some roller coaster ride with an MFA graduate student trying to put together a story for a Phd thesis after plowing through stacks of note-cards filled with random facts and dates.
Sophia, of course, is a somewhat engaging character flitting around on trains from Paris to Stockholm, accepting an award for her work in mathematics, mentoring with an old professor, marrying two older men, having a child, lecturing, writing novels, remembering the past.
But, as a stiff, sexless Chekhovian persona, shattering the glass ceiling of a male-dominated profession, she presents a disappointing contrast to Munro’s other characters throughout the collection who, in my judgment, lead modern complex lives of quiet desperation. Sophia, quite frankly, is just far too retro to be able to compete with the more flesh-and-blood characters of the other stories.
That being said, if I were to categorize this latest collection of stories, I would say that Munro has a sharp-edged sense of the gothic, of unpredictable and subtle transformations, and of the real flesh of human relationships. There is an almost embarrassing honesty about her characters that will never become a conversation piece of a bourgeois cocktail party. And she is not about to pontificate about the glories of upward mobility or rugged individualism. Her characters often live in the repetitive world of their own commonness in spite of their educations or their sensitivities.
At the risk of sounding politically correct, I would hazard to say that Munro’s stories have a very distinct Canadian sensibility—no crisis is ever at the screaming decibel level, her tragic characters seldom suffer any epic falls from grace, and disillusionment over the unattainability of the ideal is never portrayed at a nihilistic level. Her characters endure, saddened and somewhat tainted by their tragedies; however, they never decompose into despair. That of course is the essence of Munro’s narrative world: tragedy without hopelessness.
Except for the last story, there isn’t a narrative in this collection that doesn’t open up so many of the wounds of just being alive.
In “Dimensions,” we are given a character who remains perversely loyal to a husband. She continues to visit him in prison until a serendipitous moment opens her up to a breath of life she vicariously discovers through someone else (I could have been far more generous in revealing exactly what happens, but I’ll leave the specific spoiler details for the reader to discover). The central character has enslaved herself in the grim world of undeserving loyalty and, for the most part, numbs herself to the tragic life she has inherited from her husband. Her epiphany, if you can call it that, has a razor-sharp suddenness to it but, to her credit, the author refuses to bask in any long-winded analysis of the character’s swift change of heart. Like life, an opportunity arrives, we react to it quickly, case closed.
“Child’s Play,” “Face,” and “Deep-Holes” are wonderful youth narratives that come to full bloom for the characters much later in life.
Having taught young adults for most of my career, I was intrigued by “Deep Holes” for its challenging portrayal of a silent, rebellious teenager who breaks out on his own to pursue a radically austere self-discovery journey in the big city. The brief and awkward conversation with his mother, after many years of silence, cuts at the edge of ambiguity that most of us, as parents, would probably experience (we would like to believe we would react with stunning clarity if one of our teenage children ran away; Munro knows better).
“Face” for me didn’t have the gothic edginess of “Child”s Play,” even though both stories are about early childhood experiences seen through the lens of time. In “Face,” a child’s innocent caricature of a birthmark becomes conflated with an act of self-mutilation that a reader can easily infer is drenched in guilt, self-hatred, and/or a desire just to feel.
Next to “Dimensions,” “Child’s Play” is Munro at her best. It is truly a mythic-narrative-of-return without any of the Hollywood-driven acts of redemption. Two childhood friends are at a beach, they participate in a gruesome act, time passes, one of the characters visits her unconscious and dying friend who leaves her a note to see a priest, she is unsuccessful, the childhood event is recalled. The official narrative is finished. The reader is left to pick up the pieces of a world in which there are no final acts of grief or catharsis.
“Child’s Play” certainly has a shivering gothic quality to it and offers some competition to another Carson McCuller’s look-alike, “Free Radicals.” In a quick, Monarch-Notes version, a stranger comes knocking on a country house door. A woman occupant opens the door and invites the stranger in. In the course of a brief conversation and a showing of some photos, the stranger reveals a hair-raising event. In a quick unexplained survival moment, the woman talks her way out of a dangerous situation. The stranger leaves (the final spoiler details are obviously crucial to the story line, but I choose to withhold them here because they are too easy).
This is one of Munro’s best examples of a nuanced story in which the reader is forced to make emotional connections or to imagine more than what the plot reveals. Suffice it to say that the woman’s husband recently died and that she herself is dying of cancer. Those two facts alone can easily be juxtaposed to the emotional trauma of the woman being confronted with a psychopath. In having nothing else to lose, she experiences a volte face moment of fox-hole clarity that gives the entire issue of mortality such an explosive edge to it in this story.
When I first finished, “Wenlock Edge,” I became fixated on the gothic moment of an older rich man feeding off a private fantasy world by soliciting younger women to have dinner with him naked and then to read to him. I then realized that that story was really quite incidental to the two female characters, the narrator, an English major, and her older roommate, Nina, a transient woman who abandoned her children and is living off the gratuities of the older man who is paying for her college. Nina convinces the narrator to participate in the old man’s sexual ritual; in an act of sweet revenge for having seduced her cousin, the central character mails the cousin’s address to the old man to whom Nina returns on her odyssey of going through as many men as she can.
Much like “Wenlock Edge,” “Fiction” and “Some Women” get at the gritty, realistic details of relationships. “Wenlock Edge,” of course, is at the wilder young-adult side of sexual adventures, while “Fiction” and “ Some Women” have a much cooler, realistic grown-up quality that Munro is so good at portraying.
In “Fiction,” the central character discovers the daughter-writer of her former husband who left her for the girl’s mother. At a book-signing, she makes a bold attempt at having the girl remember a conversation she once had with the her, as her music teacher, by bringing in some special chocolates she assumed would jump-start the girl’s memory. The girl, of course, has no clue.
In “Some Women,” a dying character locks his door but makes sure only his wife is able to get the key, even though he develops an infatuation for his massage therapist. In the end, unlike the central character in “Dimensions,” he chooses the old world of a committed relationship, even though we can only assume that his sexual drive doesn’t go beyond an innocent kind of flirtation; he is, after all, close to dying (I initially wasn’t quite sure why Munro chose to use another first-person narrator as a character until the final line, “I grew up, and old.” It was clear to me, at that point, that Munro was mixing her usual themes of memory and mortality. The personal viewpoint of the narrator gives the story a strong sense of intimacy crucial to the story).
It is in “Fiction” and “Some Women” that we have the two-sides-of-the-same-coin issue of relationships that Munro fleshes out so poignantly in so many of her stories. These are modern relationships that are quick to change without notice. In “Fiction,” a husband changes his interest to another women with the same kind of whimsy as the husband in “Free Radicals.” Modernity does not require the grand-passion narratives of an Anthony and Cleopatra or a Medea; when there’s a new woman or man on the block, interests shift. No big deal.
“Wood” is one of those small-town stories about an independent woodcutter terrified that he’s going to have competition after listening to a friend’s story about a group of men having a conversation about the same area where the central character was cutting wood. Earlier in the story, his wife quits her job and goes into a deep depression. The two stories resolve in a final scene when his wife rescues her husband from an accident and convinces him that there is little credibility to the bar story—drunks, she implies, will always be drunks.
Whether it’s a small-town crisis, a quickly changing relationship, a moment of terror, the varied stages of human development from childhood to old age, or a poignant sense of memory and mortality, Munro is adeptly skilled at handling the whole schema of life’s inevitabilities. Her world may not have the rush of passion of a Zhivago or an Equus, but its slowly simmering subtlety makes us want to go back and reread, to re-feel the sense that something very tender has just entered our world. If there was ever an old classic line that applies here, it would be truly safe to say that Munro’s fictional world is indeed a small poetic cosmos of “emotion recollected in tranquility.”