(Published in the Business Standard, January 2010)
Too Much Happiness
Chatto & Windus
Distributed by Rupa & Co, POUNDS 11.99
In an Alice Munro essay on writing, she explained her view of the short story: “A story is not like a road to follow. It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows….”
Stepping into any one of the collections of short stories she’s been writing for the past four decades—her first was published at the age of 37—is like stepping into a bigger and broader house than most in the world of literature. Munro has said elsewhere that most humans have a need to explore and examine the materials with which they have constructed their own lives; few of us, as she observes so astutely, want to believe that our lives are constructed of pointless moments. And perhaps it is this quality that makes Munro so celebrated and so often a locus of critical discomfort—wisdom is a writerly virtue that’s currently out of fashion.
In ‘Fiction’, one of the sharpest and most satisfying stories in Too Much Happiness, Munro allows herself a moment of sly fun. A music teacher is reading a book by a former student who remembers their relationship with far greater intensity than the teacher does. The book is: “A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than settled safely inside.”
This is an often cited argument against the short story: its relative brevity makes it suspect, and serious writers are expected to graduate at some point to the novel. Munro began her career by trying to write novels, but as the mother of three and the manager of a busy household, she discovered as far too many women writers have that her writing had to be snatched, had to fit into shards of time. Success and fame bought her time—but it also brought her the realization that the short story was her form, not the novel.
Munro has built a far larger, more sprawling house in her apparently confined chosen space than most writers have with the vaster terrain of the novel. The stories in Too Much Happiness, for instance, deal with a father who kills his children after a marital quarrel, a predator whose particular form of abuse, practiced on young girls, is less obvious and more scarring than rape, the subtle traps woven into the waft of female friendship, the hidden ‘deep holes’ lying in wait for a couple in a long marriage. These are only the roughest plot summaries; Munro’s skill makes each short story, from Dimensions to Wenlock Edge and Child’s Play, open up an entire world, complete in itself.
Munro’s view of the world is not harsh, but it is pitiless, as in this stray observation from ‘Fiction’, which is in part about the particular humiliation of a marriage ended by one person’s inappropriate, almost risible, choice of another. “It almost seemed,” Munro writes, “as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness—however temporary, however flimsy—of one could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”
Perhaps the only sign of her age lies in this willingness to make sweeping authorial comments, to take the long view instead of seeing the more distressing human trials—divorce, terminal illness, lost love, betrayal, grief—as unjust, unbelievable upheavals.
This can be stretched too far, as it is in ‘Free Radicals’, which brings together a woman dealing with cancer and a killer on the run. This is lukewarm Flannery O’Connor territory, rather than vintage Munro. And in the title story, Too Much Happiness, the average reader will have to work to match Munro’s enthusiasm for her subject. This is a fictionalized version of the life of mathematician Sophia Kovaleski, who survived the suicide of a spouse and the gender bias of the time in Russia, only to die of influenza at 41. Too Much Happiness is Munro’s answer to a play Kovaleski wrote, The Struggle for Happiness; but it occupies an uncomfortable length, and reads far more like an embryo novel than most of Munro’s longer short stories.
As always, though, Munro’s work opens up more windows than any reader might expect. Too Much Happiness is a mesmerizing, rich collection, filled with Munro’s understanding of the workings of the world, and her continuing wonder at the variety and depth of our lives. Wenlock Edge closes with a brief look at people on the streets, going about their ordinary business, to shops and libraries and homes, and then ends on this note: “On their way to deeds they didn’t yet know they had in them.” It is this sense of possibility, good and bad, that Munro’s best work awakens in her readers, and Too Much Happiness more than delivers on the promise of the title.
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