Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

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.

Too Much Happiness

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 320
Author: Alice Munro
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-11

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.