When it was announced that Alice Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, AAUW Readers expressed a desire to discuss some of her short stories. (As for me, I had my own, slightly hysterical reaction to this much deserved recognition of one of my favorite writers.)
As I had previously led such a discussion – twice, in fact – I suggested that we talk about some of the stories in the 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. I said some rather than all, because despite their relative brevity, these tales have more density, ambiguity, and just plain strangeness than many a full length novel. You can spend a fair amount of time discussing just one of them. And so it proved.
Of the stories in this collection, reviewer Troy Jollimore said this:
The power of random events lies at the heart of “Too Much Happiness.” Nearly every story here hinges on some calamity, some unanticipated and mostly arbitrary event. Such things appear, before they happen, neither probable nor possible, though afterward they may well come to seem inevitable.
Nowhere is this truer than in the opening story, “Dimensions.” Doree, an unworldly and gentle soul, marries Lloyd, a hospital orderly whose surface geniality masks a ruthless need for domination. He and Doree have three children in quick succession; all during this time, Lloyd increases his oppression of Doree, bending her to his will and all but extinguishing whatever spirit she still possesses. Finally, out of the relentless workings of this pressure cooker existence, the explosion comes.
The climactic event of this first story is so awful that some readers declared themselves too put off to continue. Or if they did continue, it was under duress and with heightened anxiety. But even those whose reactions were strongly negative admitted the power of the writing. Here is how Munro describes Doree’s life in the aftermath:
For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers or the smell of a bakery.
From a previous reading, I had written in the margin that this was as succinct a description of human misery as any I’d ever encountered.
In the first part of “Dimensions,” Lloyd emerges as the kind of person most of us meet with at some point, either in real life or in fiction. Here’s my description of a similar character in another context:
Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!
Bart Hansen is a character in “The Execution,” one of four novellas in Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates.
One of the readers commented that the power of “Dimensions” lies in the meaning of the title: that the characters, Doree in particular, live in an always changing dimension as events unfold. And those events do unfold with a kind of terrible inevitability, until at the very end there is an unanticipated moment of genuine consolation.
The story we considered next was “Wenlock Edge.” Where “Dimensions” was shocking and tragic (and for some, bewildering), this one is just plain weird. As with many Munro stories, “Wenlock Edge” opens in a studied and understated way, with the introduction of a character who goes on to play a supporting rather than a leading role in subsequent events:
My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts.
In demeanor, Ernie seems to have been a sufficiently pleasant person; physically, however, he was at best unprepossessing. Because he tended to be somewhat heavy in the hip region, the narrator referred to him, when he was out of earshot, as Earnest Bottom. She adds: “I had a mean tongue.”
This narrator, whose name is never divulged, is destined to be on the receiving end of a life lesson that is equal parts unanticipated and bizarre. It requires that she accede to an outrageous demand.
The title “Wenlock Edge” refers to the poem “On Wenlock Edge” by A.E. Housman. This poem is part of a cycle of sixty-three poems published in 1896 and called A Shropshire Lad. In a key scene in the story, the narrator is asked by an elderly man to read to him from this collection. The circumstances in which this occurs are singular, to say the least.
Here is the poem “On Wenlock Edge:”
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
At first sight, this poem is somewhat confounding – at least, with its esoteric and archaic vocabulary, it confounded me. An excellent explication can be found on a site called Hokku.
“On Wenlock Edge” and other Housman poems were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In this video, tenor Ian Bostridge sings them and also tells something of their background:
We were in Shropshire in 2011. It’s easily one of the most mysterious and beautiful places I have ever been to. Wenlock Edge is defined as “a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire.” We saw it from a distance. Here it is, photographed from the air:
While there, it was my great good fortune to obtain this gorgeously illustrated edition of A Shropshire Lad:
The next story we looked at was “Deep-Holes.” A husband and wife are on a picnic excursion with their three young children. What appears on the surface to be an ordinary family outing turns out to be anything but. The eldest child, Kent, tumbles down a hole and is severely injured. Sally and Alex are informed of the accident by their younger son Peter. Sally meanwhile is attempting to nurse baby Savanna.
There follows the inevitable panic. By Herculean effort, Alex manage to rescue Kent, who has broken both legs. One of the breaks was sufficiently severe that he’s left with a slight limp. Other than that, he recovers and seems to be fine. Yet this outing proves fateful, in more ways than one. The family goes on as before, but there’s been a subtle change, especially as regards relations between Kent and his father.
In fact, this discussion made me realize that “Deep-Holes” is a story about the father-son relationship. I mentioned reading somewhere once that every son must eventually face a moment of reckoning with his father. This moment can be especially fraught if the father is difficult and demanding, or has achieved a distinguished position in the world and expects his son to do the same. The irony in this story lies in the fact that Sally is the one who ultimately bears the brunt of Kent’s accumulated resentments.
This story elicited some personal (and to a certain extent, painful) recollections from members of our group . One involved a brother, a favored sibling in the family, who joined a cult and cut himself off from that same family. Another was of an elder brother whose troubled relationship with their father never achieved a satisfactory resolution.
As we were trying to parse the differences between an American and a Canadian sensibility, one among us revealed that she’d lived in Calgary, Alberta, for a time. When you dwell in the Canadian provinces, she assured us, you definitely know that you’re outside the U.S. The place just had a different feel. This was even more true of the small towns in the region. (Actually, her observations reminded me of how I felt when I left the Baltimore/Washington area to go live in a small town in southern Wisconsin. I’d lived in South Korea for a year prior to that move, and I felt more of an alien in Wisconsin, perhaps because I didn’t expect to feel so thoroughly out of place there.)
The penultimate choice for discussion was “Child’s Play,” a story that begins with unprovoked hatred and culminates in an act of terrible malevolence. When I first wrote about Too Much Happiness, I said that “Child’s Play” put me in mind of “The Tell Tale Heart.” by Edgar Allan Poe. Both stories illustrate “the generative effect of a baseless loathing,” but there the similarity stops.
“Child’s Play” contains a sentence that demonstrates the way in which Munro’s stories sometimes go quietly along and then wallop you:
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.
With Poe’s narrator, it is, of course, the old man’s eye:
He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Poe’s narrator is a lone actor, whereas in “Child’s Play,” Marlene and Charlene act in concert. Before they act, though, they’ve spun a web to enclose one another in their own unique world, one in which irrational feelings and beliefs make perfect sense. This phenomenon has a name: folie à deux, also called shared psychotic disorder. That may seem an extreme diagnosis in the case of these two ordinary-seeming girls – that is, until they do what they do.
That “Child’s Play” is told by Marlene in the first person makes it all the more provocative. She circles the horror at the center of the story, unwilling to confront it until the very end. Back and forth she goes, from her childhood to her life as adult, leaping lightly over the truth at the center of things until Charlene’s plea renders continued denial all but impossible. Charlene is desperate for absolution. But what about Marlene? What does she truly feel about their shared past? We can never know. Munro lets you into her heart and mind just so far, and then no further.
So intense was our discussion of these four stories that we barely had time to discuss “Too Much Happiness.” The title story in this collection is substantially longer than the preceding ones and differs from them in significant ways. It recounts the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first great female Russian mathematician. (The feminine form of the last name is Kovalevskaya. Her first name is sometimes spelled Sofia, and she was also known as Sonya. One must be mentally nimble when dealing with Russian names.)
Sophia’s life, both in its personal and professional aspects, was a constant struggle. She could not travel outside her native land without the consent of either parents or husband. Therefore she acquired a husband for that specific purpose, so that she could pursue her studies at some of Europe’s great institutions of learning. Not long after, the husband dies; so does Sophia’s sister. When she goes to visit her widowed brother-in-law and her adolescent nephew, she is shabbily treated. Urey, the nephew, is especially mean-spirited, disparaging Sophia’s study of mathematics as unnecessary and a waste of time. He himself declares that he aspires to be employed on buses to call out the names of stations – a much more useful occupation, he smugly informs his aunt, than that of mathematician.
Urey reminds me of Kent in “Deep-Holes.” In fact, Munro’s fiction features a veritable gallery of repugnant and nasty offspring. She’s the least sentimental writer on the subject of children that I’ve ever encountered (with the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates). They turn on their well-meaning parents and/or relations for no apparent reason. Or if they don’t turn on them, at the very least they abandon them, as Kent does.
In an acknowledgement at the end of the book, Alice Munro says that she discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while researching another topic in the encyclopedia. Many of us who love to do research have had similar experiences.
Sophia is in love with Maksim, a man who resents her intellectual accomplishments and aspirations and in my view is in no way worthy of her. But of course such considerations carry very little weight where matter of of the heart are concerned. Sophia seems to me a conflicted woman, wanting to excel in her field but also willing, even eager, to submit to a man’s domination. Sometimes, in both life and art, our preferences do not line up as neatly as we would wish them to.
Someone in our group said that “Too Much Happiness” was her least favorite story. One problem all of us encountered when reading it is that the cast of characters was large and sometimes hard to keep track of. In addition, there was a great deal of time shifting, a narrative device to which Munro is quite partial. Usual she makes use of it very effectively, but perhaps because of the length of this particular story, it can cause some confusion regarding the sequence of events. Nevertheless, I really liked it, mainly because of its recreation of the world of late nineteenth century academia and because, like Munro, I was deeply gratified to be introduced to this extraordinary woman, whose existence I’d not been previously aware of.
In general, some members of our group liked Alice Munro’s fiction more than others. One person said that these stories simply did not work for her because she could not like or identify with any of the characters, nor did she find them sympathetic or likeable.. Yet this same individual made valuable contributions to the discussion. I know I complain about the demands of book groups, but sessions like this remind me of how exhilarating and edifying the experience can be.
There are some excellent critiques and posts on the subject of Alice Munro’s works. In particular I’d like to recommend Reading the Short Story, a blog by Charles May, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach.
For those wanting to read more of Alice Munro’s stories, I recommend Carried Away: Selected Stories, published in 2006. The selecting was done by Munro herself, as representative of what she considered to be her best work to date. The book contains a very illuminating introduction by Margaret Atwood.
It has to be said these stories are not for everyone. Some readers find them too bleak and too perverse in their view of human nature. But I find them both mesmerizing and brilliant.
While I was preparing for this discussion, I let Carried Away fall open to where I’d stuck a post-it flag a couple of years ago. This is what I found:
My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they’re missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you’re wracked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter. Going upstairs to pray after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling.
From “The Progress of Love”