Critical Mass

NBCC Featured Review: Brooke Allen on Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness

By Brooke Allen

Critical Mass regularly highlights an exemplary review by an NBCC member. This week, we feature Brooke Allen, a 2007 finalist for the NBCC's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, on Alice Munro's recent collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness. (The review originally appeared at Barnes and Noble

The novelist Benjamin Cheever once brilliantly summed up New Yorker fiction as the kind of story where nothing much happens, but you feel a little sad about it anyway. Alice Munro's wonderful short stories (12 volumes of them so far), many of them originally published in The New Yorker, can mostly be said to fall into this category. But in old age she seems to be moving in a new direction, for things do happen in the ten tales that make up her latest collection, Too Much Happiness: lots of things, sometimes violent things. The tone is set in the very first story, “Dimensions,” a disturbing look into the mind of a young woman to whom unspeakable damage has been done.

We first encounter Doree as she rides the bus to prison to visit her husband. She is a motel chambermaid: “She liked the work — it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night.” Why does she wish to have her thoughts occupied? What images does she wish to banish from them? Little by little, Munro reveals the chilling events that have led up to this moment: her meeting with Lloyd, an aging hippie, when she was only 16; his psychological domination of her; his growing paranoia; at last, unthinkably, his murder of their three children.

After a lifetime spent honing her natural narrative gifts, Munro is able to spin this out in mesmeric style. But the masterstroke is the way she gets across Doree's current state of mind, the thought processes that make her continue to visit Lloyd against the advice of well-trained therapists and social workers, and to believe that he is the only person, in the end, who can fully share her pain. As always, Munro demonstrates an extraordinary ability to inhabit the minds of characters who bear little surface resemblance to her, and she is also far more at ease than most contemporary writers with a wide range of social classes.

Recognizing this quality in her work, Munro has suggested that a life spent in the small towns of southern Ontario has exposed her to a wider range of human types than she might have encountered in an urban existence, where people are more stratified both socially and professionally. This seems a plausible theory and goes far toward answering the ever-interesting question of why it is that quintessentially urban writers (Joyce, Dickens, Balzac) present a more complex but not necessarily richer vision of human life than rural or “regional” authors (Faulkner, Hardy, Flaubert). Munro's protagonists come from both ends of the social spectrum, and they are of every age: in fact in a couple of these tales, “Fiction” and “Free Radicals,” the author kaleidoscopes different periods of her characters' lives together in a long view one seldom sees in short fiction. And in “Some Women,” a close-to-perfect piece of work, she demonstrates her facility with the child's-eye view of adult life, a technique originally made famous by Henry James's What Maisie Knew.

The now-elderly narrator of “Some Women” looks back on the late 1940s, when at the age of 13 she got a summer job fetching and carrying for a cranky old lady, Mrs. Crozier. Mrs. Crozier's son is dying of leukemia in an upstairs bedroom; his wife, Sylvia, has a job teaching summer school two afternoons a week, which stigmatizes her in the eyes of the town: “People were just down on her because she had got an education,” the narrator remembers. “Another thing they said was that she could have stayed home and looked after him now, as promised in the marriage ceremony, instead of going out to teach.”

Need any more be said about the narrowness and meanness of this community? Old Mrs. Crozier doesn't like her intellectual daughter-in-law any more than the rest of the town does, and when a sexy, narcissistic masseuse named Roxanne begins coming to the house to work on the old lady's aches and pains, we see, through the narrator's half-comprehending gaze, a sinister alliance grow between the two women, culminating in their ungodly contest against Sylvia, the wedded wife, for an “almost obliterated prize, Mr. Crozier.” “The carnality at death's door — or the true love, for that matter — were things I had to shake off like shivers down my spine.”

Munro's characterization of Roxanne, deftly accomplished through a minimum of dialogue, gesture, and allusion, is immediately recognizable. “I began to understand that there were certain talkers — certain girls — whom people liked to listen to, not because of what they, the girls, had to say, but because of the delight they took in saying it. A delight in themselves, a shine on their faces, a conviction that whatever they were telling about was remarkable and that they themselves could not help but give pleasure. There might be other people — people like me — who didn't concede this, but that was their loss. And people like me would never be the audience these girls were after, anyway.” In this case the crude character is observed from the outside; in another marvelous story, “Child's Play,” the narrator herself diagnoses the crudity — the evil, as it turns out — in herself.

The title story of the collection is an experiment, at least in Munrovian terms; though it doesn't quite come off it is of interest, as of course is almost anything this writer produces. Fifty-seven pages long, “Too Much Happiness” is Munro's imagining of the life of an actual 19th-century Russian woman, Sophia Kovalevsky (1850-91), who first came to Munro's attention in the Encyclopedia Britannica. “The combination of novelist and mathematician immediately caught my interest, and I began to read everything about her I could find. One book enthralled me beyond all others,” she writes: Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky, by Don H. Kennedy. Kovalevsky's life story is indeed fascinating: she succeeded in becoming a world-class mathematician at a time when there were no academic posts for women in Russia or almost anywhere else in Europe (only Swedish universities opened their doors to her), and she lived through dramatic historical events, including the 1871 Paris Commune. “Too Much Happiness” makes pleasant enough reading, but as with so many fictionalized versions of real people and events, one can't help thinking that the actual biography — in this case Little Sparrow — probably has more to offer.

So Alice Munro, despite the hints she dropped that her previous fiction collection (The View From Castle Rock) would be her last, is still going strong, and still growing and developing. It will be interesting to see what surprises she might have in store for the future.