Alice Munro is known for her gift to shine a light on the cobwebs of life, finding the complicated traps we are inclined ignore as we move through the mundane act of living. Munro, it has been said a thousand times before, makes the simple seem remarkable, the benign explosive. But in Too Much Happiness, for the first time, Munro writes stories that are in themselves dark and scathing, even without her delicate unearthing.
These are stories of murder, deception, dysfunction and impenetrable loss. Told with Munro’s usual piercing directness, they are often so grueling that they are difficult to read. We are almost convinced that these are every day events yet simultaneously appalled at their innate cruelty, creating a great sense of angst and confusion. While Munro’s past stories have offered a sliver of a protagonist’s life that is enlightening and efficient, these stories often feel painfully unresolved.
The narratives she elucidates are sometimes so sharp and so helplessly honest, that they are hard to process. There is almost the urge to reach in and rescue the characters, never from their external enemies, but always from themselves. In the opening story, we meet Doree, a young woman who has reinvented herself after her husband kills their three children and cannot stop herself from frequently visiting him in a mental hospital.
The mind of this young woman is a twisted mystery; the reader is given facts but left to wonder at many things. She has changed her name, lied to a social worker and slipped in and out of rational consciousness. Whereas Munro can always be counted on to expose the concentrated truth, here she shows her ability to accurately and numbly report only the dizzying facts.
The stories reflect both the saturation and the irony indicated in the title: The world of this book is simply the other side of the coin, or the opposite of happiness. Sometimes the tales are so scathingly dark that they seem like they ought to take place in another universe, but they are disarming because they are written with such bleak realism. That said, the truth of these tales has caused a slight shift in Munro’s writing style. Sometimes the narrative sputters and races.
In “Face”, a child with a disfiguring birthmark is prevented from knowing of it by his overprotective mother. Disturbing interactions with a playmate reveal the truth, and also spell doom for her when her own mother becomes bitter, jealous and deranged. “Some Women”, the story of ailing man’s seduction by his trashy nurse, moves on par with the chaotic urges of its controlling characters, only to reveal that true power is wielded in silence.
These stories are bumpy where Munro’s stories are usually smooth, and it is hard to say why. Perhaps in leaving her own routine she managed to change the tempo and rhythm of her own writerly voice. Perhaps she struggled with the dark material as much as her readers will. The subjects of these stories are violence, sexual perversion and gratuitous cruelty and it is almost those as though the content is at war with Munro’s natural ability to flow.
Often the characters must act faster than they can think, creating an inherent anxiety in the text. In “Wenlock Edge”, a woman given the choice between a humiliating seduction and impoliteness chooses the former without hesitation. Her dismay after this event is represented not by agony but by irritation. Like many of Munro’s characters, the protagonists in this collection are trying to find clarity, but they bring with them an unprecedented sense of loss.
In “Free Radicals”, a woman dying of cancer with a month to live finds herself doing all she can to protect herself against an intruder. Given the “choice” between death now or death later, she is both elegantly calm and wildly imaginative, digging into her own previously unacknowledged guilt. The question at the heart of this story, “what’s the point of one more month of life, anyway?” might summarize the painful, forceful tug that lives beneath all the stories in this collection.
Each and every character in these stories seems to teeter on the edge of life and death, good and evil, hope and ambivalence. Together, these tales represent the underbelly of the world, clawing to turn the tides of judgment and fate.
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