Review of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness
To say that a given novelist or short story writer’s work is full of “truth” is to risk relinquishing all credibility as a critic or reviewer and to join the ranks of the professionally enthusiastic and unfailingly uncontroversial book talkers who clog most weekend book review sections and lit-themed radio shows, smothering all literature in the same warm, verbal honey.
And to say it about Alice Munro? My God, you might as well follow it up by declaring that Tuscany is “beautiful,” the immigrant owners of a local shop are “charming,” and that twelve-tone compositions “present a real challenge to the listener.”
Munro’s limitations are easily identified and enumerated. Even people who’ve only read one or two of her stories – maybe for a course on contemporary CanLit, or because they wanted to know what all the fuss was about – believe they can spot where her borders lie. She has only ever written short stories (though 1971’s Lives of Girls and Women, a collection of linked stories, has sometimes been taken – and marketed – as a novel). The many dozens of stories she has written appear, on the surface, to vary little in terms of tone or approach or even subject matter (which is usually summed up, a little dismissively, as being the very thing identified in the title of that aforementioned 1971 collection). Her settings are most often small or mid-size communities in Southern Ontario or British Columbia. They are either roughly contemporary or set within a not-too-distant past, though the thematic concerns of the stories don’t seem to change depending on whether they are happening in the Now or the Then. Her stories of the past don’t grapple head-on with huge historical injustices such as slavery or the wiping out of First Nations cultures, and she has yet to set a contemporary tale within the boardrooms of a multinational corporation with a name like CONUNEXT or Global Operating Dynamics. She doesn’t write to expose or explain complex financial and political systems. She isn’t looking to report on some bleeding edge cultural shift or to investigate subcultures. She doesn’t wield the blunt club of satire against deserving cultural villains. She never takes language itself for a run or sabotages her narratives to allow new forms and ideas to emerge from the ruins. Worst of all, the distinct reek of autobiography seeps from many of her stories.
With a writer so closely bounded, so seemingly unambitious, so content to till the same ground over and over in the same way, how can you use so grand and definitive a word as “truth”?
Though it may curse me to a lifetime of middlebrow cooing on the CBC, it can’t be avoided: the one thing that truly is constant throughout Alice Munro’s work – the thing that makes irrelevant all those concerns about too-familiar settings, similar-sounding female narrators, or cultural unhipness – is Truth. To read her best stories is to experience some of the best fiction in the English language. It’s true that there are precious few (if any) bravura sentences, elaborate set-pieces, or startling narrative risks in her work that one could present as evidence to prove this – indeed, Munro’s prose often shrinks down to the level or easy ironies or homespun insights when presented in excerpt form. The greatness of her work lies in its total effect (which puts critics and reviewers at a distinct disadvantage).
All the same, Munro has been publishing for over forty years, and has released over a dozen collections. Even if we are to concede that, yes, she is among the greatest writers of this and the past century, the well must surely be drying up by now.
How is it then, that there is not a single bad story among those collected in 2009’s Too Much Happiness, and more than a few that easily rival her best?
The collection opens with “Dimensions,” about a young woman who frequently, and somewhat clandestinely, travels to the London, Ontario prison to speak to the older husband who, in a fit or rage or pique or something else, killed their three children with his bare hands. In just about anyone else’s hands, this would have been a tale of Dark Obsession or of how Sometimes It’s A Hard World For Small Things, complete with an epigraph from the Old Testament or Johnny Cash or both. In Munro’s hands, it becomes a deeply complex story about desperate human needs that exist outside of love or hate and about the involuntary connections (and disconnections) created by pain and tragedy. How she accomplishes this is just about beyond explication, as the story and its characters grow more mysterious the more we read, though there is never a sense that Munro is engaging in literary obfuscation. We don’t sense the manipulation because Munro is a master of control: even when her tales feel haphazard and breezy, even when we feel we are being given too much incidental colour and too little decisive action, there is almost always a realization (often in retrospect or on a subsequent reading) that everything in a given story is deliberate and perfectly placed and measured.
Munro’s stories are endlessly mysterious not because they are solipsistic, but because they are every bit as expansive and boundless as they are rooted in the particular. Her settings and scenarios seem banal, but reveal vertigo-inducing depths. In “Dimensions,” the woman says she could never forgive her husband, “that terrible person, that isolated and insane person,” but wonders “what was she here for if not at least to listen to him?” This realization does not come upon her as a curse, but as a blessing. The almost mystical effect it has on her would seem ridiculous had not Munro ensured that every detail of her world is felt as real and concrete. It’s a story that, like the best of Flannery O’Connor, is infused with the spirit of a religious parable, while remaining thoroughly encased within the flesh of contemporary realistic short fiction.
The majority of the stories here have the feeling of parable or allegory. It’s surprising, given Munro’s reputation for only writing about small people doing small things in small parts of the country, how many of the stories contain elements of the remarkable or the bizarre. In “Wenlock’s Edge,” a young student befriends a young woman who is in the thrall of a deeply jealous and controlling rich man who likes to have poetry read to him by naked girls. Poetry being read aloud in a highly symbolic manner also appears in “Face,” about a childhood friendship remembered by a retired radio host with a strawberry birthmark covering half his face. A different kind of childhood memory is remembered in “Some Girls,” about a brutal and long-hidden deed carried out by two girls at summer camp.
Giving the outlines of the stories like that risks making them sound like the kind of hackish tales that filled magazines in the decades before Munro first started writing. And she does occasionally risk melodrama here, as in “Free Radicals,” in which an elderly widow must outwit a pathological killer on the run. The story is much neater and more direct than anything else in the collection, and the ending comes close to winking at the reader, but nothing in the story feels false or constructed. At worst, it comes of more like a kind of genre exercise by a literary master than an uncharacteristic slip.
The collection is not without its weaker moments, of course. “Wood,” about a man who must crawl out of a forest after twisting his ankle, has the feel of a Jack London tale of man vs nature and is thoroughly engaging, but peters out by the end. And the book’s title story, a fictionalized retelling of the last few days in the life of Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalesky, feels like the result of a momentary authorial enthusiasm, a mere project rather than a fully realized work of art. The story is not dull or poorly written, but feels oddly inert and literal.
However – and here we get back to the gushing – these few missteps only serve to throw the collection’s best moments into sharper relief, and to remind us that, despite her freakish consistency, Munro does not simply write these stories in her sleep. A story like “Fiction” – a decades-hopping story about the fallout from a broken relationship and the unsettling effect of having one’s less honorable moments converted into, well, fiction – is one of the best Munro has ever written, and great works of art are not the result of mere craftsmanship or of skill learned through repetition. With a story like this, littered with so many of the usual Munro motifs but containing nothing that is remotely stale, the rut that she is often accused of writing in is revealed to be the size of the world.
Munro, like every other literary writer who specializes in short fiction and exhibits an interest in the quotidian, often gets compared to Chekhov. It’s not an invalid comparison, but the real effect of her work is closer to that of Tolstoy. In reading Tolstoy’s fiction, as with Munro’s, there is the feeling that one has not simply witnessed an artistic performance, however excellent, but rather of being possessed by a vision of the world. It’s this effect that marks the difference between very good writers and the Great, between brilliant fictions and the Truth.