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TOO MUCH HAPPINESS BY ALICE MUNRO
, November 17, 2009
This review is from: Too Much Happiness (Hardcover)
It is an honor to review 'Too Much Happiness' by Alice Munro, who I consider the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language. Ms. Munro is Canadian and lives in Clinton, Ontario. During her writing career she has garnered many awards including the Lannan Literary Award, the United States National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the Atlantic Monthly, as well as many other literary publications. I consider her an icon.
With each book of hers that I have read (and I have read them all!) I think that she has reached her zenith. Yet, with each new publication, I find her newest work better than her previous publications. Her work is glorious. At the rate she's going now, her zenith may be light years away.
I find the metaphor of looking into a tide pool an apt one for describing the stories of Ms. Munro. A tide pool is a microcosm of the ocean, yet it has a certain stasis and life of its own. It is a living organism, relating to the macrocosm of life in many ways. The tide pool contains living species of fish, reptiles and crustaceans, all delineated by their own life cycle which can change with the tides or with the events of weather. Ms. Munro's stories are like this. She will take a small microcosm of life and show how it has enduring and lifelong effects - effects which may be immediately observable or which may not be obvious for decades.
'Too Much Happiness' is a collection of ten short stories, each wonderful in their own right and each one as rich and nuanced as a novel. Many of them deal with similar themes - paradox, movement through time, repercussions of impulse, regret, acts of horror and relationships.
'Dimensions', the first story in the collection is about a damaged woman whose three children are murdered. She goes through life feeling empty through she talks to a social worker regularly. She is driven to visit and re-visit her ex-husband in jail. At one point he writes her a diatribe about his revelations that their children are now in another dimension. On her way to visit him one evening on the bus, she witnesses a car accident and attempts CPR on the victim. Through the CPR, she can feel life return to the young man who is near death's door.
By the third story in this collection, 'Wenlock Edge', specific themes begin to emerge - Who are we? Do we change in relationships? Of what are we capable under certain situations? Do these situations have particular reasons or are they random events related to our current environments?
The story begins with a a young woman who has regular visits from her aunt and bachelor uncle when she is a child. Her aunt dies. The young woman continues school in the city and has a weekly ritual dinner with her uncle. She also has a small circle of acquaintances. Solely by chance, she ends up with a part-time roommate with a `history'. This roommate is always getting herself into situations that don't work out and that compromise her virtue. She is also a prolific liar and likes to be in one-up situations with others. Both young women find themselves "on their way to deeds they didn't know they had in them".
'Deep-Holes' begins with a family outing to celebrate the father's publication of a paper on geology. During the course of the picnic, one of the sons, Kent, falls into a crater and breaks both of his legs. He has to remain out of school for six months. During that time, Kent and his mother share stories about distant isles and lands that are remote or unknown to mankind. One of the children becomes an attorney, the other a physician. Kent drops out of college and is heard from rarely and erratically. He lives on the fringes of society and the question arises, `What is society? The story reminded me of a novel by Carol Shields, a Canadian author, now deceased. I wondered if this story might be an homage to Ms. Shield's novel.
'The Face' is a wonderful story about a boy born with a port wine stain on half of his face. His father abhors him for his looks and calls him `liver face'. The father is rude, crude, awful. The mother is sanctimonious, martyr-like and loving her son in a standoffish way. The father avoids the son in every manner possible - he doesn't eat with him, talk to him or spend time with him. Ms. Munro brings up a lot of questions about this boy's life and the metaphor of paradox is paramount. "You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never".
'Child's Play' is a story that is idyllic on the surface and horrific in the interior. Two young girls attend a summer camp and during the course of this camp they do something that is never spoken about again until decades later. Even then the extent of what happened when they were children is not fully absorbed.
Each of these stories is masterful and wonderful in the telling. I've read the book twice and appreciate it more with each reading. There is no one living to compare Ms. Munro with. The only writer I can think of whose short stories I love as much as hers is Eudora Welty. What a group of two!!
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