Alice Munro, genius of the short form, does it again with Too Much Happiness

January 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

Alice Munro’s economy of expression conveys a disproportionate impact. From “Face”:

‘Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.

From “Child’s Play”:

‘I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.

In “Child’s Play,” the animosity conceived by one young girl for another is as powerful as it is irrational. You know almost from the outset that if this feeling is ever acted on, bad things will happen. Even so, I was not prepared…

This study in the generative effect of a baseless loathing put me in mind of the story that sets the standard: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. “Child’s Play” is included in Best American Mystery Stories 2008  (this despite the fact that Ms Munro is Canadian – go figure).

The first story in this collection, “Dimensions,” initially appeared in a June 2006 issue of The New Yorker. As I soon as I began reading it I knew I had encountered it before. It is not a story you’d forget: its central event is as shattering as it is inevitable, born as it is from the actions of a deeply flawed character. It is also about consolation, which, in this instance, comes in an unexpected form from an equally unexpected source.

“Free Radicals,” on the other hand, surprised me because in form and substance it is much like the classic short stories I studied in high school. In it, a widow suddenly finds herself at the mercy of a jumpy sociopath who has talked his way into her home by taking advantage of her kindness. In her own turn, she  proceeds to talk her own way out of the situation by means of an extremely clever stratagem. “Free Radicals” is quite the cunning little invention – it even reminded me, albeit faintly, of O.Henry at his most ingenious.

Munro’s dialog tends to be terse. The same is true of her descriptive powers. Even so, she can make a setting spring vividly to life, as in this passage from “Wenlock Edge”:

‘The college library was a high beautiful space, designed and built and paid for by people who believed that those who sat at the long tables before open books–even those who were hung-over, sleepy, resentful, and uncomprehending–should have a space above them, panels of dark gleaming wood around them, high windows bordered with Latin admonitions, through which to look at the sky. For a few years before they went into schoolteaching or business or began to rear children, they should have that.

How beautifully she evokes this special time in a young person’s life when he or she is given this unique gift of a time and place apart from the world.

In “Deep-Holes,” Sally, a nursing mother, is made to feel shame, even mortification, not when among strangers but within the confines of her own immediate family. This story covers the span of a lifetime; Sally’s children grow up. Stiff necked Kent, the eldest, finds new ways to inflict pain on his mother. One may fairly ask: when does it end? (This is a story I would love to discuss with someone.)

The title story is placed at the end of the collection. It concerns one Sophia Kovalevsky, whom Wikipedia describes as “the first major Russian female mathematician.”  In a note at the end, Munro explains that she ran across this fascinating character while doing research on another subject. (This kind of serendipitous discovery is, of course, one of the prime joys of doing research.) Munro’s re-imagining of Kovalevsky’s turbulent life features a large cast of characters, and I lost my way from time to time in the thicket of names and places. Nevertheless I loved sojourning in the heady world of late nineteenth century European intellectuals. (A  word to the wise: Don’t read the end note until you’ve finished the story, as it contains a “spoiler.”)

“Too Much Happiness” brought to mind two other contemporary collections that feature masterful historical short stories: 

One last word on Munro: all is not weighty seriousness. Throughout these stories one finds a liberal scattering of  sly, provocative observations on the human condition. There is this, from “Too Much Happiness”:

“‘Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind….When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.'”

Finally in the story “Wood,” there’s this description of a large extended family: ‘It was a clan that didn’t always enjoy one another’s  company but who made  sure they got plenty of it.’ I laughed out loud when I read that. I’ve known such families – haven’t you?

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Here’s an extremely interesting and perceptive piece on Alice Munro. (And aren’t I delighted to have found this fine blog!)

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Alice Munro, consummate artificer

8 Comments

  1. Priscilla said,

    What a wonderful review! I cannot wait to read this. Also, I believe Best American publishes authors from all countries–they just have to be published in an American periodical or journal.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Many thanks, Priscilla, for your gracious words. And thanks too for the clarification in regard to the “Best American” series of books.

  2. Kay said,

    Roberta, Happy New Year! Your blog is just amazing. The amount of detail and work you put into it just boggles my mind. I do enjoy it so much even though I don’t comment often. Anyway, hope your new year is marvelous.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay,
      What a lovely compliment – thank you so much! I actually find writing extremely hard work, so comments like yours really do help me stay motivated.
      Happy New Year to you, too!

  3. adevotedreader said,

    Best wishes for the new year Roberta!

    I love Alice Munro’s work, and plan on reading her latest soon. I’m glad to hear it’s up to her usual standard.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Best wishes to you as well. It’s been gratifying to hear from people who appreciate Alice Munro’s fine works!

  4. “‘Plato said all science begins with astonishment.’” – The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] heard of Sophia Kovalevsky before reading the title story in Alice Munro’s story collection, Too Much Happiness. Now I have encountered her in two different works of fiction in less than three […]

  5. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro Museum of Dr. Moses – Joyce Carol Oates Cheating at Canasta – William Trevor […]

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