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Book review: Go ask Alice (Munro)

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Book review: Go ask Alice (Munro)

Too much happiness can be a bad thing

Alice Munro has been labeled as a practitioner of "Southern Ontario Gothic" for years, and she’s never been Goth-ier than in her latest collection, "Too Much Happiness," which was published in November by Knopf.

Its release was cause for celebration; Munro had declared 2006’s "The View from Castle Rock" her last book, announcing in The Toronto Star that she was "putting down her pen."

That didn’t last, and thus we have 10 new stories. The buzz has been positive, mixed with remarks about the perceived luridness of the new book. They’re not wrong that "Too Much Happiness" is rich with the macabre. Just that this is uncharacteristic for Munro.

"Wenlock Edge," from the new collection, deals with a young coed who is inexplicably drawn in to a bohemian encounter with an eccentric millionaire that involves the reading of poetry that’s uncomfortably eroticized, though not in the way you might think.

There are deep echoes here of earlier stories, like "Cortes Island" from 1998’s pitch-perfect collection, "The Love of a Good Woman." In that story, a young newlywed is browbeaten by her landlady into reading news clippings to her paralyzed husband. Later, our protagonist is haunted by rape-fantasies involving the old man.

It’s classic Munro: bookish girls uncertain of their place in the world running up against complicated, often perverse underbellies that stir dark desires in them. One of the triumphs of Alice Munro, characters marked by passivity almost always stumble into an act of transgression.

In fact, transgressions – how they happen and why they haunt us – may be the key theme of her life’s work.

Compare Kent, the errant son in "Deep-Holes" to the lost daughter Penelope in “Silence” from 2004’s "Runaway". Conventionality is fraught with peril, and Munro’s characters either live uneasily within its confines (despite one or two acts of defiance that often define them) or reject it outright, shattering those left in their wake.

This all signals that Munro’s no longer innovating. She’s spun these threads before, but here the designs, though familiar, are cast in striking variations. This might even be the ideal entré into Munro’s work for those who’ve never read her: instead of the massive, stunning tales in both "Runaway" and "The Love of a Good Woman," here we get ten relatively small but resonant works in the same style.

As noted, the macabre and the gothic dominate, from smothered children to murderous fugitives to small cruelties that blossom into shocking acts of violence.

In "Dimensions," a controlling husband reacts to a domestic argument in a completely unexpected way. In typical Munro fashion, the man’s wife is benumbed by his actions but can’t quite seem to cut the ties that bind her to him. Reflecting on the aftermath of her marriage, she tries to find her way back to normalcy but can’t quite make it. "She still did not," writes Munro, "have that spontaneous sense of happiness, exactly, but she had a reminder of what it was like."

The title’s ironic resonance is felt in every story. Joy is defined by our distance from it, our inability to channel it is frustrated by perceiving it everywhere around us, but not of us.

Domestic dramas are also Munro’s province, as in "Some Women," where a nursemaid is bewildered by the household where she works tending to a man dying of leukemia. The man’s wife, his mother, and the mother’s masseuse weave a bizarre web of manipulation and urgency around him.

Similarly, in "Fiction," an aged bohemian discovers an account of herself in a short story published by a former pupil. The crescendos in these stories are entirely internal, where the shifting of protagonist’s self-image, as when Joyce in "Fiction" is forced to re-frame how she recalls a momentous period from her early life, is treated with as much gravity as the drowning of a disabled girl in "Child’s Play."

There are a couple of shaky pieces here: "Wood" and "Face" – both, interestingly, dealing with male protagonists – never really get off the ground.

At this sitting, I can’t ever recall Munro spinning gold out of the lives of men. Her work is undeniably universal, and maybe I’m forgetting some essential story (after all, she’s published dozens), but she seems at her best chronicling women’s lives, the intimacies and perversities at the heart of the everyday.

"Too Much Happiness" has all of that. In the title story, Munro fictionalizes the last days of a historical personage, a 19th century female mathematician whose life is defined as much by its compromises as by its triumphs.

What is forsaken often renders our essence; we’re what’s missing as much as anything that’s there. Alice Munro reminds us, when we’re hemmed in by our day, or the roles we perform, or the choices we’ve made, the beauty in the world can be remain painfully out of reach.

Sean Bottai is a Tucson-based novelist and journalist. He teaches at the University of Arizona.


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