Alice Munro has the ability to describe in one sentence what would take lesser writers paragraph upon paragraph to explore. She can disintegrate a years-long relationship in a sentence and it never feels jarring to the reader. She explores the essence of human experience in a way that highlights the aching, pressure-cooker way that people relate to one another. Nothing seems easy in Munro's world, yet it doesn't seem overtly melodramatic or necessarily posed to be dramatic. It's her innate skill to highlight the utter randomness of life and it's inherent losses. Secrets that are taken to people's graves. Lovers that ruin marriages. Short story writers that present a different view of a shared time period. It all sounds so cliche -- like the worst of Hollywood's blockbusters (yawn 2012). Yet at the deft hand of Munro these experiences are concise, cutting and often heartbreaking.
Of the 10 stories in the collection, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite. The novel-like depth of the title story, "Too Much Happiness," its ironic title, its compelling heroine (novelist-slash-mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky), was the weightiest in terms of page count, and somewhat unlike the other stories in the collection with its historical, non-Canadian setting. The day-to-day structure of Kovalevsky's life was in clear contrast to her academic life. In a way, the more successful she was at her work (regardless of how that success plays out in terms of stature), the less her personal life seemed in order. Regardless, Munro's story charges forward, driving home until its sad conclusions (I hope that's not a spoiler).
The underlying irony behind the entire collection, the idea that happiness, in its most cliched, Hollywood form, doesn't exist. The people in Munro's stories are content. They move forward in their lives because there's nothing else but to do -- and yet the existence of happiness haunts them all, from the young woman who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy, to the music teacher-slash-hippie-slash-performer. Each of the stories pulls you into a certain precise moment of human bliss, whether it's the birth of a child, a problem solved, or comfort in a marriage. And then, without being content to have her characters simply enjoy these moments, Munro pulls them out of their reverie, even if it's an everyday kind of thing, and puts them through the tough times. The opposite of happiness. Where survival means life has changed and change, coping or not coping with it, remains an integral part in what makes us human.
There's a scene in "Dimensions" that will haunt me forever -- it's a visceral, unthinking reaction that her character has to the horrible events going on around her. And there's moment in "Wenlock Edge" where the narrator describes another woman's hair (blonde) as a colour that always meant cheap to her (I'm paraphrasing terribly here; my copy of the book has been leant to a friend). Both of these small, tight sentences that appear not in the end, but in the middle of these two stories, are indicative of the power of Munro's work. I've been thinking about them for days. And once I get my book back I'll add the proper quotes (how's that for a lame review).
Masterful yet never manipulative, Munro gives you happiness, and its consequences, in its many forms in this collection. Take your own human heart with you as you read, realizing that it might be broken a little bit long the way.
READING CHALLENGES: Too Much Happiness is book four for this year's Canadian Book Challenge.