Tuesday 27 October 2009

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

“The complexity of things - the things within things - just seems to be endless” (Alice Munro)

It’s both a great pleasure and something of a surprise to find yourself with a new book by Alice Munro in your hands. A pleasure because Munro’s stories (recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize for overall contribution to literature) are invariably such an addictive, immersive treat; a surprise because Munro had more or less announced that her collection The View From Castle Rock (2006) would be her last. Sad as that news was, that book felt like an appropriate end to Munro’s career, revisiting as it did a number of her previous stories from a more overtly auto/biographical perspective. But three years on Too Much Happiness has appeared, and I seem to remember Munro being quoted as saying that her 2004 collection Runaway (my favourite book of hers, alongside The Beggar Maid [1978]) was also to be her last. Like so many of her protagonists, Munro, it seems, cannot easily give up the urge to story-telling. For this we should be thankful.

I confess, though, that Munro’s stories have begun to scare me a little. Not just because they are so devastatingly good, but also because their author has latterly become, in Jonathan Franzen’s phrase, “a master of suspense.” The temporal loopings and fractures that have increasingly characterised her stories are sharper and more pointed now so that, as readers, we’re often caught up in the emotional fall-out of an event before we bear witness to the event itself. The first story in Too Much Happiness, “Dimensions,” must rank as one of the most disturbing things that Munro has yet written; the story works up to the most unspeakable of events through incremental details. And yet the revelation of that event in no way constitutes the whole story. Munro often chooses to end her stories on moments of reversal or "supplement" far too complex in their ramifications to be described as "twists." Here, the knowledge disseminated by a perpetrator of violence comes to save a life in the end.

A later story, “Free Radicals,” is practically Munro’s Funny Games, a face-off between an intruder and a terminally ill woman that strikes terror with the simple sentence “Look what I gone and done now.” Unlike Haneke’s puppet-pawn protagonists, however, Munro permits her character agency: the construction of narrative here saves one life (in a way that seems much more believable than the absurd “Dover Beach” recitation in McEwan’s Saturday). An accident - typically, for Munro - quickly finishes another.

With the stories pivoting around incidents of violence and swerving in and out of the thriller genre, by the time you get to a story entitled “Child’s Play” you’re almost expecting an appearance from Chucky the devil-doll. (Sadly not, though the story is properly unsettling, offering an analysis of girlhood treachery that surpasses Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.) Some stories explore familiar Munrovian themes from a fresh perspective. Taking its title from the Houseman poem that the protagonist is coerced into reciting (under very particular circumstances), “Wenlock Edge” confronts the incongruity of a couple viewed from outside, and turns on a truly satisfying moment of retribution. The superb “Fiction” continues Munro’s examination of the use writers make of real experience (and other people) in their work; Munro’s protagonist here undergoes the experience of finding a version of herself presented in someone else’s fiction; her “confrontation” with the author at a book-signing is a classic scene: funny, deep and brilliantly observed.

Notwithstanding the collection's overall brilliance, a couple of the stories didn’t quite work for me, at least not on a first reading. “Deep-Holes” feels like a companion piece to 21st century absent-child narratives including Shields’s Unless (2002), Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage (2004) and the unforgettable "Chance-Soon-Silence" sequence in Munro’s own Runaway, but, despite a dynamic opening, it adds little to any of these. Though intriguing, “Face” doesn’t quite convince me, and I have a feeling that Munro’s (rare and not entirely successful) use of a male narrator is one of the story’s problems. (There’s a study to be written on Munro’s male characters who seem, unfortunately, to be getting nastier with each collection.) The final, title story is something new for Munro, a text based around a historical figure, in this case the 19th Century Russian novelist and mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. Its full of detail and insight, and is a marvel of sympathetic, felt research. Yet “Too Much Happiness” ultimately strikes me as a story to stand back and admire rather than one to truly love and inhabit.

It’s become commonplace to praise the “fullness” of Munro’s short stories. But reading a new collection by her you’re struck yet again by the ways she finds to make the form so breathtakingly, ballooningly expansive. Starting in one mode and ending in another, swerving unpredictably then guided by a steady hand, Munro’s stories can encompass the trajectory of a life in all its complexity, its fractured experiences gesturing towards connection. Too Much Happiness would be a fine swan-song to her career. But I sense that this writer still has more stories to tell, more of life’s mystery and mundanity to untangle and examine.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I haven't got to this book of hers yet, but I'm currently reading Lives of Girls and Women, and - predictably - enjoying it a great deal.