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Everything is Funny: A review of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness

September 16th, 2012

Too Much Happiness (Douglas Gibson Books / M&S)

I’ll never forget what Alice Munro said to me the first time we met. She had come to Calgary to read. I purchased her book, I believe it was “The Moons of Jupiter,” and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it had not occurred to me that most of the stories contained a lot of humour. The audience laughed heartily at the story Alice read, one I had read in all seriousness. I said to her after the reading, “It never occurred to me that your story was funny.”

Her reply was, “Bill, everything is funny.”

Her new collection, Too Much Happiness, contains ten delectable stories that are as good as anything she has written in her long career. The collection is vintage Munro in that many of the stories are novels, covering years and lifetimes, condensed to their tasty essence. The language as always is crisp and clear, like the tinkling of bells. Reading becomes a compulsion: one has to find out what is going to happen.

In “Deep-Holes,” the character Sally has to deal with a son, who at age 9 falls into a deep hole and is rescued by his father. The boy becomes a strange, troubled, possibly insane adult, who disappears for years at a time. Here Munro comments on the difficulty of possessing specialized knowledge and how this era of the internet diminishes that knowledge. When her son was young they scoured books for information on obscure and isolated islands like Tristan da Cunha. Years later, wanting to brush up on those details, she thinks of the encyclopedia, but ends up on the internet where every imaginable fact about Tristan da Cunha is displayed. She no longer has secret knowledge, and feels a terrible disappointment.

In the opening story “Dimensions,” Doree’s husband is in an institution for the criminally insane, having committed an unspeakable crime. Still, Doree visits him, unable to break the control he wielded over her. She listens to his manipulative ramblings and is tempted to accept his babble of other dimensions. She returns to reality literally with a crash, when she happens on an accident scene, and takes control of her own life by saving the life of a young accident victim. The language is striking: “A trickle of pink foam came out from under the boy’s head, near the ear. It did not look like blood at all, but like the stuff you skim off from strawberries when you’re making jam.”

The story “Fiction,” my favorite in this exemplary collection, deals with the question of what is fact and what is fiction, and does a writer really know where a story comes from? Or, for that matter, what a story is really about. I’m reminded of Henry James protesting that The Turn of the Screw was merely an entertainment, negating the volumes of psychobabble written about the novel.

“Fiction” contains some wonderful humor that I didn’t miss. Here is Alice Munro describing a self-centred young author’s first book:
“How Are We to Live, is the book’s title. A collection of short 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 settled inside.”

“Free Radicals,” the title a strong play on words, is about a home invasion. The invader, young, dangerous and slightly insane enters the home of a widow living in a semi-rural area. The story sent me running to reread Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the tale of an escaped convict and his pals executing a family in the rural South. In O’Connor’s story the sense of menace is palpable, in Munro’s it is muted. “Free Radicals” is more about the widow, Nita, learning about herself and what she is capable of, as she concocts a story, trying to win the invader’s trust, about committing a murder herself. Only the deus ex machina ending is a little too pat, about the only soft spot in the whole collection.

The criminal shows Nita a photo of his family who he murdered earlier in the day. “. . . it was the younger woman who monopolized the picture. Distinct and monstrous in her bright muumuu, dark hair done up in a row of little curls along her forehead, cheeks sloping into her neck. And in spite of all that bulge of flesh an expression of some satisfaction and cunning.”

“Child’s Play,” the story of two very young girls at summer camp, explores the banality of evil, and how disturbing events put behind us will just never stay in their place.

The title story is vastly different from the other nine, but no less accomplished. The story describes the final journey of a real life person, Russian mathematical genius Sophia Kovalevsky, a woman who was far ahead of her time, and who was an inspiration to women of her time, and is still a model to aspiring scientists. Her genius was not fully acknowledged. “. . . they kissed her hand and presented her with speeches and flowers. . . But they had closed their doors when it came to giving her a job. They would no more think of that than of employing a learned chimpanzee.”

The Swedish were less discriminatory and she found employment in Stockholm. “The wives of Stockholm invited her into their houses. . . They praised her and showed her off. . . She might have been an oddity there, but she was an oddity that they approved of.”

One of the reasons I retired from fiction writing in my 60s, besides feeling that I had said most of what I wanted to say, was that I have seen so many elderly writers trading on their name and turning out pitiful parodies of their former greatness: Updike and Mailer immediately come to mind. Therefore, it was a relief to find that Munro has not lost a step, and that the quality of this collection matches anything she has written in her long career.

In my 40-some years on the CanLit scene, an industry rife with jealousies, feuds and petty backbiting, to which I have contributed my share, I have never heard anyone say anything unkind about Alice Munro, personally or professionally. When Alice wins a prize other writers and critics are not lined up to name ten books that should have won.

Now Alice Munro has won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize.

In my opinion she and Irish writer William Trevor are the world’s finest living short fiction writers, something the Nobel Prize people might well consider.

Essay Date: 2009

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