If there’s a better short story writer working today than Alice Munro, I haven’t read her. In story after story, Munro manages to compress whole lives and emotional arcs into 20 or so shapely pages, long enough to engage us in their world but short enough to absorb in a single sitting or commute. Her prose is spare without feeling rushed or cryptic, at once lucid and subtle.
Yet Munro works in a genre so maligned that she playfully has a character in her new collection, Too Much Happiness, parrot the habitual jabs leveled at her beloved form. When a music teacher named Joyce, the protagonist of the richly layered story, “Fiction,” comes across a former student’s first book, she reacts negatively: “’How Are We to Live’ is the book’s title. A collection of stories, not a novel. This 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 inside.”
Of course Munro, who has won Canada’s top literary awards multiple times and recently won the Man Booker International Prize, clearly stands firmly parked well inside the pearliest gates of Literature.
As for her character’s disparagement of short stories, it is quickly mitigated by “Kindertotenlieder,” a story-within-a-story about a young girl who gradually realizes that the music teacher she adores – clearly based on Joyce – is the displaced wife of the woodworker she and her mother have moved in with. The girl is filled with bitterness at the realization that the teacher has been giving her special attention only to gain access to her estranged husband.
Joyce relates deeply with the girl’s conclusion: “It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness – however temporary, however flimsy – of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.” But in having Joyce try – and fail – to connect in person with her former student, Munro takes this complex, bipartite tale to another level: a commentary on the nature of fiction and the relationship between reader and writer.
The key word in the quote above is “random.” Unfathomable randomness is at the heart of many of these stories, many of which involve small flare-ups of violence. Several feature unloving fathers or controlling husbands, but there are also children who behave cruelly.
One of the most powerful stories is “Dimensions,” previously published in The New Yorker, about a young woman recovering from devastating loss. It’s a chilling portrait of submission, need, and abuse, evoked with painful lines like this: “She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.”
The subtleties in Munro’s stories are myriad, making us marvel repeatedly at how much she manages to convey with so few words, including back stories for her characters.
On one level, “Free Radicals” is a tense page-turner about a recently widowed woman who fends off a violent nighttime intruder with quick wit. But the woman’s diagnosis of terminal liver cancer, which preceded her older husband’s sudden death, adds multiple dimensions to the story. Munro writes, “The fact that she was going to die within a year refused to cancel out the fact that she might die now.” The false confession she invents to save herself hints at deeper guilt over having stolen her husband from his first wife.
Munro ventures into quasi-historical fiction in the long title story, a somewhat uncomfortable fit for her and as close as this masterful writer comes to a misstep. “Too Much Happiness” follows Sophia Kovalesky, a late 19th-century Russian mathematics professor and novelist, on what turns out to be her final, wintry journey through Europe before returning, ill, to Sweden – the only country that will hire a female mathematician.
Although “Too Much Happiness” shares Munro’s pet themes of women’s rights, the tug between marriage and independence, and the often inexplicable events that shape a life, it feels more reported and less immediate than her customary, more contemporary, small-town Canadian fare.
Munro is often compared to Chekhov, not because she writes about Russians but because of her ability to gracefully illuminate the way people grapple not just with difficulties but with the difficult question posed in “Fiction”: How are we to live? Munro has written 14 extraordinary books to date showing that although there are no easy answers, it’s a question worth asking nonetheless.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.