In his 2004 New York Times review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, author Jonathan Franzen painted himself into a corner by bluntly stating what has likely occurred to most reviewers of Munro’s work: “Runaway is so good that I don’t want to talk about it here. Quotation can’t do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.”
Exactly. Why bother plundering the thesaurus for not-too-trite superlatives or repeating for the umpteenth time that each of Munro’s stories is as rich and textured as a novel and that reading one of them replicates the experience of peeling away the most intimate and overlapping layers of several characters’ lives?
Read the work. Just read the work.
But the seasoned book-review reader, alert to the splashy tones of log rolling, to fetishistic enthusiasm and lazy hyperbole, is bound to recoil at this demand, asking, “Is the work really that good? Really?”
Yes, the work is that good. The pertinent question is: why?
Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness, provides enough material for such an enquiry. The signature locations – the towns and cities of southwestern Ontario and coastal B.C. – are all accounted for, as are the minutely etched Munro characters, the striving young women boxed in by convention, family ties, and self-sabotage, and the careless and calculating men who promise them a richer life, then deliver too much or too little on that promise. There is also, in every story, any number of friends, lovers, cousins, maiden aunts, stricken mothers, distant fathers, and suddenly intimate strangers, each acting in ways that are both duplicitous and guileless, frank and secretive, stubborn and yielding.
Munro excels at depicting such paradoxes. She roots her stories in the point of view of a single character whose conversational, introspective tone is initially endearing to the reader. I’m a little like that, the reader thinks, I observe things, I am often pulled out of the moment by a chance memory or association. Munro makes you like her protagonist, then through the action of the story makes you wish you’d withheld judgment a little longer. Hidden seams of resentment, pride, vanity, and schoolyard cruelty are revealed, and if readers are honest enough, they will eventually recognize a kinship with the story’s protagonist they’d likely never admit even to a close friend.
“Fictions,” perhaps the collection’s best story, offers a master class in this technique. Joyce is a bright woman from a dreary Ontario town who marries Jon, her high school’s even brighter light. The pair trip around North America exploring the fringes of various countercultures before settling down in rural B.C. Jon works with wood, Joyce teaches music; together they build a workable life. When Jon leaves Joyce for his homely apprentice Edie, an ex-prostitute, the reader relishes Joyce’s withering assessment of Jon: “He’s such an infant sexually, it all makes you sick.”
All very good, but it’s hard to sympathize with Joyce when she engineers a magnificent Christmas concert at the local school with no real purpose but to impress Jon, whom she assumes will attend with Edie, whose daughter Maggie is one of Joyce’s easily manipulated students. Later, our sympathies shift again when Joyce discovers that Maggie, now a successful author, has published a story about a small-town music teacher who temporarily transformed the life of an emotionally vulnerable student. The ending is restrained and completely surprising.
Secondary characters, often introduced in off-hand anecdotes or meandering recollections, eventually emerge from the sidelines, shocking the story’s protagonist with their refusal to act according to type. The collection is stocked with such vibrant personalities, such as Roxanne, the chatty, dirty-joke-telling masseuse in “Some Women,” who brings unexpected lightness into the home of a dying man, or the confident best friend and summer-camp bunkmate who participates in a ghastly crime in “Child’s Play.”
Munro also continues to experiment with narrative, creating a deliberate sense of formlessness that mimics the sudden twists and stutter-steps of her protagonists’ inner and outer lives. She does this by loosening or omitting key support beams in a story’s structure – details are forgotten or overlooked in the telling, intentions misinterpreted, wrong turns taken – creating strange but believable gaps in plausibility and causality. Many of the plots rely on coincidence, chance encounters, or uncharacteristic last-minute changes of plan, but Munro subtly links these eruptions of the uncanny to character and setting.
The collection’s only near misstep is the title story. Though it contains the texture and complexity of Munro’s best work, “Too Much Happiness,” which fictionalizes a love affair involving 19th-century Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevski, lacks much of the attention-riveting, lived details of those stories set within Munro’s lifetime. The effect is a little disappointing, leaving the reader with the feeling of having read a great author in translation, the language a shade removed from the grandeur of the original.
In the end, however, Too Much Happiness, like the majority of Munro’s work of the last quarter century, leaves this reviewer with nothing more original to say than that Alice Munro might be the best English-language author writing today.