Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
2009, 304 pages, hardcover, $26

how alice munro manages to churn out a book of stories every year or two that consistently exceeds readers’ expectations is beyond me. It’s rare to find a writer who hits her mark early in her career and sustains that level of quiet brilliance for decades. Sure, there is the rare flop–some didn’t like the semi-autobiographical The View from Castle Rock–but on the whole her books are consistently good, if not great. With each new collection, Munro takes more risks with narrative and structure; she writes less lavishly, pares down her sentences so that her words express the essential, crystallized detail, making it seem as though that detail could not have been rendered any other way. With each new book, Munro manages to outdo herself. Her breaks with convention can make her stories appear difficult for some readers, but like any great work of art, approachability is extraneous. The effort is its own reward. When I begin a new Munro book (and I’ve read them all), I’m usually overwhelmed by the chatter surrounding its publication. Every critic seems to have his or her own special way to read this particular Alice Munro story. As with Shakespeare or Tolstoy (she’s more often compared to Chekhov, but I don’t think many people actually read Chekhov these days), when you’re reading Munro you have to turn off the hyperbole, the commentary that can prevent you from enjoying the work on its own terms. You have to forget what you’ve already heard about this Canadian writer–not just the awards, but the virtuosic prose style, the leaps in narrative time, the complex character histories packed into just a few pages. You have to forget what I’m saying here and simply enter the worlds of her stories. When you find your own reasons for liking Munro (or Tolstoy, or Shakespeare), what everyone else says becomes irrelevant.

One thing is certain: she will surprise you.

What surprises me most about this latest collection, Too Much Happiness, is how dark Alice Munro’s fiction has become. “Too Much Happiness” is an ironic title for a story that depicts the last days of a nineteenth-century female novelist and mathematician dying of pneumonia. Yet this is probably one of the least somber tales of the collection. In others, such as “Dimensions” or “Child’s Play,” Munro’s characters, especially her child characters, meet horrible ends. You’d have to go back to Runaway to find tragedies of a similar caliber. In Too Much Happiness, Munro delivers her action in swift, spare, brilliant prose. She toys with memory, plot, and narrative timing. In both “Child’s Play” and “Dimensions,” she withholds crucial information so that we have to read on to find out what has happened to characters. Such deliberate suppression of narrative events might come across as a cheap method of maintaining suspense in the work of a lesser writer, but in Munro’s hands the effect succeeds.

Consider the triple murder of “Dimensions.” By the time we get to the actual description of the carnage, Munro eschews sensationalism and instead delivers her scene in succinct, brutally honest sentences, leaving much to the reader’s imagination: “Dmitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door–he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on his throat. The pillow had done for the others.” Had done. This is minimalism at its finest. But for those who cannot stomach the raw violence, keep in mind there are lighter stories. “Fiction,” which is funny in an odd way but probably the weakest of the collection–if you can call a Munro story “weak”–parodies the author-celebrity phenomenon. Munro goes one step further and pokes as much fun at herself as at her fans. After Joyce, the protagonist, purchases the book of an acquaintance, she remarks on the genre: “How We Are to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. That 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 safely settled inside.” Note the capital “L.” The author has probably heard such observations made about herself in the past by people who have strong opinions about art but no idea what good fiction really does. With her twelfth collection behind her, Munro has firmly settled inside the gates. It’s up to the rest of us to barge in and discover what all the fuss is about.

-David Norman