Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

It goes without saying that Alice Munro pretty much wrecks the curve when it comes to the contemporary short story, but perhaps she has started wrecking the curve even for herself. This thought passed through my mind, very briefly, as I read the first few pieces in her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, a book rife with jarring twists in plot, occasionally inexplicable behaviour from characters, and themes that seem just a shade too direct. Far be it for me to even suggest that Munro can write anything less than a perfect short story, but I did wonder through those first few pieces whether these were as good as Munro at her best. Had she hit a plateau? Can we even judge short fiction in such linear terms?

Thankfully, these thoughts proved fleeting as I worked my way through the pieces in Too Much Happiness. After reading these tales – stories of women (and occasionally men) encountering abrupt moments of violence or strangeness, tough decisions or off-kilter relationships – I felt that feeling I always get after completing a Munro collection, that I had been taken on the most exquisite ride by one of the world’s most accomplished storytellers.

My favourite piece had to be “Some Women”, a story of a young girl who goes to work in a house where a man is dying of leukemia. This is classic Munro – the deeply explored dynamic between various tiers of womanhood: in this case, our smarter-than-thou protagonist, the dying man’s mother, the dying man’s wife, and a brass masseuse who provides everyone with a reality check. Munro is superb at handling the various nuances of her female characters, and she shows this talent off in several other stories as well – specifically “The Wenlock Edge”, which contains a very bizarre ‘naked dinner party’ at one point, and the aptly named story “Fiction.”

One of the many delights of reading Munro is the way she is able to assess and describe a character in such succinct and devastating ways without ever coming across as overly judgmental. I’m thinking of one passage in particular, from the story “Fiction”. Here the protagonist, Joyce, has gone to a book signing for a young authoress who has just published her first collection of short stories. Joyce encountered the girl many years earlier (as well as recently at a dinner party), and there is a story in the collection based on an encounter she had had with Joyce all those years ago. This is how the description of her at the book-signing table unfolds:

There was not a scrap of recognition in the girl’s face. She doesn’t know Joyce from year ago in Rough River or two weeks ago at the party. You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from – why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.

Christie O’Dell sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world.

It’s such a cutting description, one of an ice-cold ingĂ©nue whose success as a writer may have been based on sheer luck as much as anything else. And yet Munro does not judge her in this moment; she simply captures her through Joyce’s eyes.

There are a couple of stories in Too Much Happiness that didn’t quite do it for me. Her piece “Face”, which tells the story of a man born with a large birthmark on his face, has a number of problems: it’s told from a first-person male perspective, which I didn’t quite entirely buy in this case, and I never quite accepted the hatred that the man’s father feels towards him. And the last story in the collection, the title story, seems oddly out of place in the rest of this book. It tells the story of famed 19th century mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky, who was one of the first women ever to teach at a European university. Here, Munro relies a little too heavily on her research and keeps an arms-length distance from her subject. We never really get inside Sophia’s psychology as a character, and the story is weaker for it.

But overall, Too Much Happiness remains one of Munro’s strongest collections. She sets the bar very high for herself, but she happily clears it in almost every instance.

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