Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Review copy from www.mcclelland.com

Review copy from http://www.mcclelland.com

When Alice Munro’s previous original collection appeared (The View From Castle Rock, reviewed here), there was speculation that the book would be the last new work from Canada’s literary icon, now in her late 70s — even the dust cover of this new volume acknowledges she was “flirting with the idea of retirement”. She has abandoned that idea, at least for one more book, and readers are better off for it.

For other Canadian authors, the news that Munro would have a new book out this fall was anything but good — she would move to the front of the queue for all of Canada’s 2009 literary awards. Munro, ever the decent person, has taken care of that last concern however, at least as far as the Giller Prize is concerned. A two-time Giller winner, she qualified for submission automatically but she has asked that her novel not be considered “to make room for younger authors” (that quote from a story written by Douglas Gibson, her publisher of 30 years and himself an icon in Canadian fiction history). Whatever you might think of her writing, this is a writer who exemplifies class from top to bottom.

And then there is her sense of self-deprecating humor. I had spotted this reference in “Fiction”, only to find that McClelland and Stewart in the Canadian edition chose to highlight it on the back cover:

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.

You don’t have to be an avid participant in book forums or a reader of reviews to know that many readers wish that Alice Munro wrote more novels, because they get more attention and win more prizes, although Munro did win this year’s Man Booker International Prize. This paragraph would seem to indicate that she is fully aware of what she does well and is fully comfortable with it. Me too.

There are 10 stories in this collection and nine of them (the title story is the exception and I promise I will get to it) represent an overview of vintage Munro work. Many are set in “Munro” country (rural Ontario west of London); some on the West Coast, where she spends half the year. The central characters range from the young to those emerging from youth, the middle-aged, or those approaching old-age — Munro has a way of using, rather than portraying, age to develop her point. Other typical characteristics that are at play in this collection:

1. Each of these stories carries the complexity that would make it not just a good novella, but a novel. One of the things that Alice Munro is best at is compressing the elements of a good novel into 30 pages of tightly-written prose.
2. A dark side looms in every story — in fact, much of what Munro is about is peeling back the layers of the onion to expose the dark centre that is her central premise.
3. The best stories also feature another common Munro characteristic, one that she shares with authors like Ian MacEwan at his best. While 80 per cent of the story is told in scrupulous realistic fashion, there is the other 20 per cent — other-worldly, absurd, surrealistic. It is almost as if the author says “trust me and accept these unbelievable oddities — I’ll deliver before the story is done.” She almost always does.

Let me focus on one story, “Wenlock Edge”, in some detail to draw out some of Munro’s strengths. The title comes from an A.E. Housman poem; the central character is a young woman who is starting university, studying English and Philosophy, in London, Ontario:

My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His name was Ernie Botts. He was a tall, florid man with a good-natured expression, a big square face, and fair curly hair springing straight up from his forehead. His hands, his fingernails, were as clean as soap, and his hips were a little plump. My name for him — when he was not around — was Earnest Bottom. I had a mean tongue.

But I believe I meant no harm. Hardly any harm. After Aunt Nell Botts died he did not come anymore but sent a Christmas card.

That innocent, but foreboding, introduction continues as the heroine starts university — Ernie takes her to dinner Sunday evenings at the Old Chelsea (they don’t serve alcohol on Sundays), where he has roast beef and she indulges in vol au vent or duck a l’orange, whatever is most expensive. He is young enough that she hopes people will think he is her boyfriend not her father, although “I was pretty sure his idea of serious reading would be the Condensed Books of the Reader’s Digest”. (Does that reference ever bring back memories for an aging generation of North American readers, including this one — another Munro speciality.)

The plot acquires tension when Nina moves in as the central character’s roommate. Nina is older (22), an unwed mother and, perhaps most important, possessed of what we would now call a “sugar daddy”, one Mr. Purvis, who not only supports her but also keeps her under observation. My apologies for the length of the following quote but it illustrates the way that Munro peels off onion skins (to explain, Mrs. Winner is the tail that Purvis hires to keep Nina under surveillance):

Just to give Mrs. Winner some practice, as Nina said, we left the house one evening and took a bus to the city library. From the bus window we watched the long black car having to slow and dawdle at every bus stop, then speed up and stay with us. We had to walk a block to the library, and Mrs. Winner passed us and parked beyond the front entrance, and watched us — we believed — in her rear-view mirror.

I wanted to see if I could check out a copy of The Scarlet Letter which was required for one of my courses. I could not afford to buy one, and the copies from the college library were all out. Also I had an idea of getting a book out for Nina — the sort of book that showed simplified charts of history.

Nina had bought the textbooks for the courses she was auditing. She had bought textbooks and pens — the best fountain pens of that time — in matching colours. Red for Middle-American Pre-Colombian Civilizations, blue for the Romantic Poets, green for Victorian and Georgian English Novelists, yellow for Fairy Tales from Lang to Anderson. She went to every lecture, sitting in the back row because she thought that was the proper place for her. She spoke as if she enjoyed walking through the Arts building with the throng of other students, finding her seat, opening her textbook at the page specified, taking out her pen. But her notebooks remained empty.

Nina may not know her university or her history, but she knows her life skills. As the rest of “Wenlock Edge” unfolds, our heroine slides deeper and deeper into an experience that she doesn’t really understand. The story is a prime example of Munro at her best. (Like many of the other stories in this book, it is available at the New Yorker website — here — I have not tried to trace them all, but if any single one interests you it is worth a search. Here's a link to what a search of the New Yorker for ‘Alice Munro’ produces.)

Just a hint at a few other wonderful examples from this book (and these aren’t really spoilers but it is almost impossible to describe a Munro story without giving something away):

– “Fiction” — a hippie-like living arrangement in British Columbia produces a marriage breakdown and evokes a flood of memories many years later when a short story collection appears.
– “Free Radicals” — the death of a husband provokes reminiscent thoughts, which are interrupted by a home invasion, that ends up heightening the memories (I warned you about Munro and the surreal).
– “Some Women” — in some ways, a Munro speciality, as an aging woman remembers a summer of her childhood and her first job, “sitting” a dying cancer patient who himself is the centre of a tug-of-war between his wife, his mother and a masseuse. Munro at her traditional best, this one.
– “Face” –what if you were born with a hideous birthmark on half your face — and the person who liked you best wanted to imitate it?

And so we come to the title story, “Too Much Happiness”, which is not a typical Munro story by any means. In her Acknowledgements, she says:

I discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while searching for something else in the Britannica one day. The combination of novelist and mathematician immediately caught my interest, and I began to read everything about her I could find.

Let’s set aside the charming notion that anyone, let alone Alice Munro, still seriously consults Britannica. One of the best things about her is that she continually reminds us of our past and it is little, offhand references like this (in the Acknowledgements, of all places) that explode those time grenades.

If Fyodor Dostoevsky was a feminist, this is a story he would have written (he is in the story). Sophia is a mathematician/novelist who has managed to get out of Russia to pursue her studies through a “White Marriage”. In true Russian fashion, the story moves back and forth through various time frames, always focused on Sophia’s struggle to realize her talents and find a life — those two objectives are obviously in conflict. It is not a typical Munro story but she does bring her typical talents to the table. We have a couple of husbands, conflict with authorities, conflict with her inner self. If in fact this is the last story that she will publish (I highly doubt that), it indicates that right until the end Alice Munro was pushing the envelope, and with considerable success. If you don’t know Munro, don’t start with this story — if you know her and like her as I do, it is a most interesting achievement.

And as much as you might like those New Yorker versions of her stories, please buy this book. Alice Munro is not perfect, but she is as close to it as any author writing today.

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29 Responses to “Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro”

  1. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Alice Munro, alias “Grace”, may well be remembered as the best Candian writer of her generation. In addition to the beautiful canon of work she as given us so far, she has become an icon of grace and dignity. Foregoing Giller nomination to make room for younger writers encourages and inspires, and magnifies the impact of her work by inviting others to join in her dazzling circle.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    She is a wonderful woman as well as a wonderful writer. My understanding is that she will make only one “onstage” appearance in connection with this book — a benefit for PEN Canada on Oct. 21 that will kick off the Toronto International Festival of Authors. Too bad for those of us in the rest of the world but Alice’s books always come ahead of showcasing herself.

  3. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Yes, KFC, Alice Munro’s work stands on its own merit, and doesnt need “production or staging” to vivify it. Her work will most cetainly endure.

  4. Trevor Says:

    I did no more than skim this review, Kevin, because I want to read the book with my own eyes first. But I am really excited. Mostly, I’m excited because it will be the first Munro book I’ve ever read, aside from a few stray short stories assigned at university. I’m hoping to get to know her canon much better, and soon.

  5. john h Says:

    I’m a huge Munro fan. I really think she deserves the Nobel although I doubt she’ll ever get it. I started reading her stuff when “The Progress Of Love” came out and have read everything since excepting the last one which I started and couldn’t get into for some reason. I fully expect to read this one too. My idea of an artist.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    john h: It is only a guess on my part, but I suspect the reason that you couldn’t get into the last one was that it is partly autobiographical and the first few stories are historical (and not like the usual Munro short stories) — if you ever run across it again, have a look at the ones in the last two-thirds of the book where she is on more comfortable ground. As a fan, I think you will like this book — I think the stories may be a litte darker than usual and, unlike some of her books which almost have a theme, this is more a survey of the kinds of stories she does.

  7. adevotedreader Says:

    I’ve almost run out of Munro books to read since I started with Dance of the happy shades last year, so am delighted she is publishing a new collection! I’m looking forward to this immensely, and am glad to hear its up to standard. The departure of Too Much Happiness sounds interesting as well.

  8. Tony S. Says:

    The great ones like Alice Munro or William Trevor make it all seem so effortless. My first Alice Munro book was “The Beggar Maid -Stories of the Lives of Girls and Women”. Then I went back and read “Dance of the Happy Shades”, then all of the rest of the books as they were published. Munro was not my first love in Canadian literature, that honor goes to Robertson Davies and his Deptford trilogy, but she has been my steadiest.

  9. Randy Says:

    I have been wanting to read (and review) a book of her stories. I have a selection by Everyman entitled Carried Away and then her later Runaway. Sounds like I might have to get this one (and Castle Rock) as well. Thanks for bringing this to light.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    adevotedreader: There is nothing quite as good as a new book from a favorite author with whom you are up to date — might be time for you to start rereading after this one.
    Randy: I don’t know the Everyman collection but since Munro chose them herself it would have to be regarded as recommended (who wrote the introduction? — I can’t tell from the tiny web picture I get). Runaway is certainly a good example of her late work. I like Castle Rock a lot (reviewed on this site a few months ago) but it is a bit different since it started off as a personal research project on her ancestry that turned into a book of linked stories.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony S: I also am a big fan of the Deptford Trilogy (and read it before I read Munro as well). I’ve always thought that Deptford the town where it starts was in what is now known as Munro country — although Davies does move globally from there. I reread it a year or two ago (the Folio Society produced a marvelous new version with great illustrations — it seems to be sold out now, but is a great book if you can find it) and was quite surprised that it has held up so well. (Also, your memory is compressing two fine Munro works. The Beggar Maid was the UK and US title for the Canadian work Who Do You Think You Are?Lives of Girls and Women was the title of her second collection from about a decade earlier.)

  12. john h Says:

    thanks for the tip about “Castle Rock” Kevin. You guessed correctly. I only read the first story or two and couldn’t get into it. I’ll check out the rest of the book at some time in the future.

    By the way, I’m about halfway through “The Underpainter” and am enjoying it. I thought it started a little slow but during my reading session today I began liking it a lot more.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    john h: It is best to approach “Castle Rock” as a memoir or autobiography, written in the form of linked short stories. Seen that way, it is a most informative book — and a reader can certainly see the influence of William Maxwell, her editor at the New Yorker, at play in it. And not many writers have chosen to tell their ancestral story in a book of linked short stories. You have read enough of her that I think you would find it interesting. I don’t know if you have read much Maxwell, but given where you live I would value any thoughts you have comparing the two. While I live in Alberta now, I was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario — the east end of Munro country — and I find many similarities.

  14. john h Says:

    I’ve read quite a bit of Maxwell, Kevin, and like his stuff a lot. Similarities with Munro? I guess the first thing that occurs to me is that despite the differences in where they grew up, they both write about escape. With Maxwell, it’s escape from small town Illinois and with Munro Ontario. But the similarity is that for both it’s escape not so much in the physical sense but escape into the life of the mind. That’s their salvation. You see it again and again in Munro’s stories. The characters put a premium on any life lived far away from where they are, away from small town narrowmindedness. You can really see this too in Maxwell’s book “The Chateau” where he and his wife go to France after world war II. John Self didn’t like this book but enjoyed it a lot. You can feel how liberating it is for him to escape into foreignness.

    As far as other aspects of their writing goes, I don’t see that many similarities. Maxwell, as you note elsewhere, is a very “quiet” writer. More often than not, he goes in for understatement. There are times I’ve actually found myself getting bored reading his stuff and I guess that’s the risk you take with understatement.

    As for Munro, she’s a much more adventurous writer, much more of a risk-taker, and not just in terms of subject matter. She writes about sex a lot and doesn’t really seem to be afraid to write about anything. I don’t ever remember being bored reading her stuff.

    It would be interesting to know how the two of them related to each other. I know Munro was rejected a number of times before she finally had something taken by The New Yorker. One wonders what suggestions, if any, Maxwell might have made.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’d agree with your Maxwell-Munro analysis, both in terms of similarities and differences. As to the last paragraphy in your comment, I too have wondered. I know that Munro contributed an essay to A William Maxwell Portrait, a collection of tributes/essays published a few years after his death — I don’t know if she or any one else comments on him as an editor. I’ll admit I am saving reading that book until I have read more Maxwell. Since you are well ahead of me on that front, perhaps you could take it on?

  16. john h Says:

    oh, I don’t know Kevin. I’m not much for reading nonfiction. In fact, I can’t even remember the last nonfiction book I read. That’s how long it’s been. It sounds like the sort of book that might be interesting enough to browse through but I doubt I would want to sit down and read it through. I like that anecdotal stuff but not enough to go out and buy it.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Damn. I have the same attitude to non-fiction. I was hoping to persuade you to read it so I didn’t have to. Curses.

  18. john h Says:

    I just finished “The Underpainter”. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I mentioned in my previous e-mail about it that it began slowly for me. But in the end it was one of those books that kept getting better and better.

    I was reminded of “Sophie’s Choice” by the story of George and Augusta–two doomed characters linking up and the end they come to. I haven’t read that book but I did see the movie. Also, it raised some interesting questions about art; to wit, when is commitment to art an escape from life?

    In the end, I think it wasn’t so much all the talk of art that I liked about the book, but more the human stories of the characters involved. I was genuinely surprised by the reappearance of Vivian near the end of the book. Very well done.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m glad you liked it John. It has been a long time since I read it but the memory of the art aspect stays with me (probably because we have a couple of pictures that are under-painted). I’ll fetch it off the shelf for a reread sometime this fall or winter — I’m thinking I may also have a reread of Away as both Toibin’s and Trevor’s Booker books have brought that one back to mind (as did some of Alice’s stories).

  20. Weekend Reader Says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m a huge Munro fan – both of her work and her character. Just purchased Too Much Happiness yesterday – can hardly tear myself away from it!

    Re: Munro’s quote from “Fiction” concerning short fiction – “…making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature…” I thought you’d be interested in Ron Powers review today in the NY Times of John Grishom’s new short story collection. Powers asserts that “[short] stories are viewed by many as the major league of literary fiction.”

    If that’s the case Munro is, in my opinion, batting a thousand!

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    WR: I’m sure you will like the collection. The NY Times does seem to treat the short story genre more seriously than most sources — although I’m not sure that I would agree with Powers’ conclusion.

  22. Trevor Says:

    That is an interesting statement. Does that make novels minor league? From my perspective, it seems that many feel the opposite. We tend to treat short stories — unfairly, in my opinion — like apprentice pieces or even as little treats between more serious work. I think that is not giving short stories or their masters full credit — they certainly can be just as substantial an accomplishment as a novel. Still, I wonder who the “many” are.

  23. john h Says:

    Kevin,

    I just read “Too Much Happiness”. As I’ve noted in previous posts above, I’m a huge Munro fan and this book did not disappoint. I had skipped “Castle Rock” but plan to go back to it now that I’ve read this one. As someone who really follows the short story closely, I continue to marvel at Munro. You don’t see many short stories writers writing on such a high level for so long. You’d have thought she would run out of material by now but she shows no sign of doing that. I can’t say enough about this woman.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John H: I agree that she is an incredible talent — I have to force myself to set the book aside and not just plow through the whole thing at once. I very much liked Castle Rock, but I suspect one reason is that it is the most novel-like of her collections since it did start out as a personal research project into her ancestry. I wouldn’t advise readers to start with it for just that reason, but for those of us who have read most or all of her work, it definitely has value. And I should also note that she is an author who very much rewards rereading — I pull an older volume out every year and am never disappointed. In fact, the stories are often better the second or third time through.

  25. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Long overdue but I finally read Too Much Happiness. “Wenlock Edge” was a marvel. The final eponymous story kind of fell flat for me. Maybe worth a rereading though.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cherine: For an experienced Munro reader, the final story is probably more an interesting curiosity than an example of excellent work. There are a number of examples of that excellence elsewhere in the volume.

  27. soccermom in Ohio Says:

    Can you all help me with Wenlock Edge. I don’t understand the ending. The main character put Ernie’s address in the envelope to Mr. Purvis. So Mr. Purvis could exact retribution on Ernie for trying to steal Nina away? Ernie told his cousin that “the uncle” Mr. Purvis and company had packed up and gone. So why was mailing the address significant? This deed was the “deed they didn’t know they had in them”, right?

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    soccermom in Ohio: Sorry — it has been a while (and many other books) since I read this. While I remember the general outline of the story, I am afraid I am not up to remembering the detail of your question and I am afraid I don’t have the volume at hand. Perhaps some other visitor here can answer your querty.

  29. Barbara Kay Says:

    Reader in Rochester, New York: Like soccermom in Ohio, I too fail to understand the ending of “Wenlock Edge.” Why address the letter to Mr. Purvis if, according to Ernie, he has left town. And, further, didn’t Nina leave Ernie and return to her “uncle”?
    Very confusing.

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