Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Too Much Happiness

What can be said about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said already? Even the complaints about the overused Chekhov references have grown as tired as the Chekhov references themselves. Too Much Happiness, Munro’s thirteenth collection of short fiction–if you count Lives of Girls and Women, her novel in stories, among those numbers–doesn’t find Munro covering new ground as a storyteller. It is, though, a return to form. Her previous collection, The View from Castle Rock, was a calculated departure (in style, on one hand, in how it used the facts of Munro’s family and personal history for fictional gain, but also in success, on the other hand, because The View from Castle Rock was an uneven collection, however much it appeased our collective voyeurism.) Around the time of its release, Munro even suggested the book would be her last. On a couple of levels, then, Too Much Happiness is cause for celebration, but not just because it finds Munro revisiting familiar territory, or because it signals Munro’s return to writing. (Most of the stories here, incidentally, were published prior to The View from Castle Rock’s release.). No, the stories themselves are damned good.

Two, in particular, showcase the uncommon gravity of Munro’s world. “Dimension” opens the book. The story explores the aftermath of absolute horror. A young mother whose three children have been murdered by her controlling husband struggles to break her connection to him, even after he’s imprisoned and continues to drift ever farther away and out of touch, physically and psychologically. What is she grieving, exactly? we ask ourselves. Just how enmeshed is she in her own subjective experience? And just when the mother, Doree, seems completely lost, deciding to do away with her only personal connection in the world, her therapist, Mrs. Sands, and just when we begin to think the story is going to drift into utter darkness, a different kind of calamity strikes, out of the blue, only this time it spares her. Almost literally, she learns to breathe again. Normally, Munro’s stories do not ascend to such brilliancy.

Another story, “Wenlock Edge” presents a familiar Munro archetype, the small-town-college-girl’s-abrupt-coming-of-age-in-the-big-city, with an unexpected twist: There’s a seduction without a seduction this time around, a striking scene in which the protagonist ends up at dinner with her roommate’s older, obsessive lover, a man who seems a strangely potent cocktail of reticence and restriction, fetish and feebleness. Needless to say, the protagonist agrees to dine naked while the man, Mr. Purvis, remains completely clothed. And while the two never touch, it’s an experience that alters the reality of every character in the story, including the roommate, Nina, and the protagonist’s cousin, Ernie.

The title story is the real gem of the collection, and also a change of pace. At fifty-plus pages, it’s too difficult to summarize in a few sentences. But it’s a piece of historical fiction that introduces readers to the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, a late-nineteenth-century Russian mathematician, both romantically and professionally, in the days before her death. In that story, and others, Too Much Happiness contains all the narrative fireworks of a typical Munro collection. At times, the book doesn’t feel as cohesive, thematically speaking, as previous collections, like 2004’s Runaway. In fact, one might wonder what Munro even stands to gain by publishing another book. If she succeeds, she only fulfills our expectations, nothing more. If she fails, she dents her own reputation. Well, suffice it to say that, after all the page-turning is over with, everything we think about Munro is still intact, and even strengthened.

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