Every story collection from Canada’s Alice Munro receives such critical plaudits that it’s tempting for reviewers to recycle superlatives and readers to take her for granted. But there is no such thing as just “another” Munro release. Each time, she extends her work in a manner that redefines it.
Her latest doesn’t represent as radical a repositioning as its predecessor, The View from Castle Rock (2006), which Munro introduced as a story cycle different than anything she had published before, based on generations of her family’s historical record as reflected in journals, letters and the writer’s research. But most of the stories in Too Much Happiness—and most of them are shorter than usual for Munro—also concern the relationship between life and storytelling, how the construction of narrative reveals deeper truths or uncomfortable lies.
In one of the stories, simply titled “Fiction,” the protagonist finds her own life recast in the stories of her divorced husband’s stepdaughter. “How Are We to Live is the book’s title,” she relates. “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 hanging on the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”
Ha! No modern writer this side of Raymond Carver has opened that gate wider for the story’s literary regard, though Munro’s fiction has more of a novelistic scope and scale than the elliptical, tightly focused work of Carver (and so many other short-story writers). In less than 30 pages, “Fiction” combines the chronological expanse of a novel with an artful compression that merges the events as remembered by the protagonist and the fiction it has inspired.
Even more powerfully, “Child’s Play” concerns the stories we concoct in order to live with ourselves. The question posed to the girlhood protagonist—“How can you blame a person for the way she was born?”—carries greater resonance as she achieves the maturity of the narrative perspective, climaxing in a stunning confessional about childhood complicity and guilt.
Title aside, there is far more death than happiness in these stories—the body count, though not the violence, rivals a Cormac McCarthy novel. Yet the title story, the longest and last, arrives at an epiphany that combines ecstasy and mortality in a manner that puts all that has come before—in this volume and throughout Munro’s career—in blindingly fresh light.
As Munro explains in her acknowledgements, it’s a story based on the final days of Sophia Kovalevski, a brilliant Russian mathematician who also wrote fiction that enraged her father. “Now you sell your stories, how soon before you will sell yourself?” he sputters after a magazine edited by Dostoyevsky publishes her. Here, Munro herself reads like a Russian master. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could write stories richer than these. Until the next Munro collection.