Too Much Happiness
by Alice Munro
Reviewed by Ellen Urbani
The advent of a much-heralded literary comeback is upon us; week after week, in a nearly endless parade of mastery, new work is being trotted out but such luminaries as Philip Roth, A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Lorrie Moore, Thomas Pynchon and even Vladimir Nabokov.
Even so, Alice Munro's 13th story collection, Too Much Happiness, will surely be one of the most venerated and widely reviewed of the bunch. Debuting mere months after her virtual coronation with the Man Booker International Prize for her body of work, and sidling out from beneath the long shadow cast by her repeated threats of retirement, these 10 short stories cement the capstone on what fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood has described as Munro's ascent to "international literary sainthood."
Much will be said that has been repeated over and over again since 1968, when Munro's first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, won the Governor General's Award in Canada. Words such as "credible," "poignant" and "genius" will be offered up by reviewers as blessed sacraments upon the altar that has become Alice Munro. There will be all the usual allusions to divergent points of view, switchbacks in time and place, and precise characterizations that dominate her oeuvre and have earned her laurels.
But sometimes before a thing of tremendous beauty a hush should fall. There is little need to speak redundantly about form or function when, through quiet observation, we may discover instead that this veteran -- whose fiction has been plumbed for denied autobiographical references since she first started mining her hometown and her heritage for subject matter half a century ago -- is alluding most directly to her personal perspective for the first time in her illustrious career.
"A story is not like a road to follow," Munro originally wrote in an essay for a friend, then subsumed into the introduction to her Selected Stories, published in 1996, "...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."
Spanning five decades of a literary career, the woman who wanted to be a novelist but got sidetracked by the demands of domesticity and therefore adapted herself to the short-story model is still reflecting on the view into, and out of, the places where we settle. In the ambiguously titled "Fiction," she writes of a woman's particular fascination with the uncurtained windows of patio doors, "meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness," a harbinger of the submerged external themes abounding within this collection: the release from physical bodies and corporeal love -- death from cancer, murder, suicide, heart attack and heartbreak -- from faces and bodies that bear the scars of history and years, from marriages that bind too tightly. Even the stories' summations are themselves cut short; more than half end with a truncated, single-sentence paragraph, as if snuffed out at precisely the right moment, yet still, somehow, caught unawares. "I grew up," one concludes, "and old."
Alice Munro is 78, ancient among a peer-set of global literati known for passions and lives that flame out fast. She has bid farewell to her parents, a marriage, a child, scores of friends and a certain fury. "As you get older," she said in an interview with The Atlantic Monthly, "your rampaging need to write diminishes a bit. You have to face the amazing fact that you're probably going to die, at some time, anyway."
Eight years have passed since she spoke those words, just a few months after heart-surgery; in that time, she has published three more books. In the title story from Too Much Happiness, a re-imagining of the life and death of 19th-century mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky (which is, in length and scope, Munro's most ambitious story to date), she posits the power of parting. "Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind," she writes. "When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her."
Munro has spent 41 years escorting us through her rooms, through the fertile house of her imagination -- "Your body ages," she said in an interview with The (London) Observer, "but your mind is the same" -- directing us to her windows, pointing out the world view beyond. "The garden is in a great mess," she writes in the voice of an elderly gentleman, whose boyhood is recounted in "The Face." "But I feel more at ease there than in the house, which looks the same on the outside but is drastically altered on the inside. ... In the garden there were no such alterations, merely neglect on a grand scale. Old perennials still straggle up among the weeds, ragged leaves larger than umbrellas mark the place of a sixty- or seventy-year-old rhubarb bed, and a half-dozen apple trees remain, bearing little wormy apples of some variety whose name I can't remember. The patches I clear look minute, yet the piles of weeds and brush I have collected seem mountainous.
"They must be hauled away, furthermore, at my expense."
Her expense, our gain. So may this be no epigram, but an ongoing excavation; may Alice Munro be the exception to the rule; may her life, literary and otherwise, stretch far into the distance. And may this house of hers, and its autumnal gardens, continue to be harvested to glorious effect.