Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro is widely recognized as being among the greatest living authors writing in English, and her latest volume of stories, just now being released in paperback, inspires, as the title suggests, almost Too Much Happiness—her thirteenth book in a nearly sixty-year career. The collection reads with the headlong rush of both a thriller and a romance. In ten stories, told with equal power and precision from male and female perspectives, Munro explores how people do and don’t move on with their lives after losing what they thought they couldn’t live without.

A master of psychological fiction, Munro champions the value and complexity of the lives of outwardly ordinary people. She examines the conflicts protagonists experience as they strive to reconcile their need for self-realization—which will differentiate them from those around them—with their desire for approval from peers. Her stories reveal that paradoxically, even community insiders are outsiders, and she frequently uses doppelgängers and “multigängers” to depict the psychological multiplicity characters may feel within themselves, or the connections that exist between different characters in a story.

Above all, Munro’s contribution to literature is her visceral sensibility. She translates the sensation of being alive onto the page. Having lived all her life in Canada, she writes compassionately but unsentimentally about characters who sometimes live in Vancouver or elsewhere, but are most often culturally grounded in small towns in Southwestern Ontario, or “Sowesto.” Yet they are so authentic and universally similar to her readers—regardless of where we hail from—that they seem to live and breathe through us, and we through them. We stand revealed as Munro unmasks ambivalent feelings between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, siblings, best friends and neighbors. And when these perfectly nice characters behave in ways that shock us, we shudder with self-recognition that leads to insight—and then relief. Munro’s stories show that we are all connected—even through our experiences of moral failure and isolation, which can lead to revelation and growth.

Psychological and physical violence, often enacted in domestic settings, are recurring features of Munro’s canon. The author examines both the pathology of patriarchal society, and the unpredictable ways that people, nature, and our best-made plans can cataclysmically erupt; reconfiguring the landscape of our lives before we can comprehend what has happened. In one story, “Wenlock Edge,” Munro intimately introduces readers to a sexual predator; and in another, “Child’s Play,” the memory of an incident of murderous bullying, among nice girls, torments and shapes the bullies for the rest of their lives.

In “Dimensions,” the opening story, when Munro pushes a character’s obsession with control over the edge, readers encounter major themes and techniques of this collection and in the author’s work as a whole. A father, Lloyd, murders his daughter and two sons in a vengeful rage against his wife, Doree. In Munro’s stories, constant tension exists between those who hold power—whether material or psychological—and those who need or want more of it; and when a less powerful character gains strength, she often pays a brutal price. Such is the fate of Doree, the protagonist.

Frequently in Munro’s stories, as in life, signs of trouble-to-come show up early, but protagonists deny them, or don’t act soon enough to avert disaster. Like Doree, they participate in bringing upon themselves the calamities that lead to their journeys toward self-discovery.

Doree, a 16-year-old high school student, is first befriended by Lloyd, a hospital “orderly”—Munro loves wordplay—during her visits to her ailing mother, whose condition is said to be “serious but not dangerous.” Lloyd is admired by patients for his jokiness and “authoritative” demeanor.

Although he is only slightly younger than Doree’s mother, he flatters the girl in the elevator, telling her that she is a “flower in the desert,” and steals a kiss. When Doree’s mother dies suddenly, she chooses to move in with Lloyd, rather than stay with any of her mother’s friends. No mention is made of her having friends her own age.

After she becomes pregnant at seventeen, they marry, and Lloyd moves her cross-country, isolating her in a rural location “they have picked from a name on the map: Mildmay.” By nineteen, Doree has three young children.

Doree’s circumstances recall the young Munro’s. When the author was entering adolescence and developing as a writer in the 1940’s, her mother developed Parkinson’s disease, and Munro became her caretaker. Her route out of her life in rural Wingham, Ontario, was a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she published her first story at nineteen in 1950. As her scholarship was expiring, in 1951, she married fellow student Jim Munro, and by twenty-six, she was the mother of two daughters, with another to follow. One of her babies died soon after birth, and a theme that runs through Munro’s stories is that of children in danger or getting lost or dying.

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