1 November, 2010Issue 14.2FictionLiterature

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Short But Not So Sweet

Simon Thomas

foerAlice Munro
Too Much Happiness
Chatto & Windus, 2009
320 Pages
ISBN 978-0701183059

“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.”

This is the reaction of a character in “Fiction”, somewhere toward the beginning of Alice Munro’s latest collection, upon pulling a volume of short stories off a bookshop shelf. Or rather, since Munro carefully divests the sentence of pronouns, the thought slips into the narrative voice—as though Munro were reaching out from her (one imagines) neat and tidy Canadian writing desk and winking anxiously at the reader. Such self-conscious defensiveness is strange from a writer so firmly inside the “gates of Literature” with its teasing capital “L”. Indeed, now that she has been awarded the Man Booker International Prize for her life’s work (which, at 79, could be considered presumptuous), Munro is essentially a key-holder for that gate.

Poe famously wrote that a short story, to warrant the name, must have “unity of impression”—the flip-side of Poe’s maxim is that a short story collection must tread the line between unity and disunity. There is little point in a collection which facilely repeats the same story, characters, and sentiment ad nauseam. Nor, however, can the reader (still less the reviewer) be satisfied with utter disparity. And where links are not obvious, they will be sought and seen by those eager to understand a collection as a collection.

On the face of it, Too Much Happiness leans toward disparity. The title is a red herring; Munro’s characters are often far from cheery. A terminally ill woman must deal with being assaulted in her home; the final days of a leukaemia patient are a battleground between his wife and masseuse; a woman is made to dine naked with her flatmate’s overly possessive husband, whilst reading to him from A.E. Houseman. And so on (if such a phrase can be applicable amongst such infinite variety), and so forth.

Yet one does not have to look too far for connections. Images of death, disease, and murder recur, often incidental to the emotional crux of the story. The figure of the intruder is similarly frequent—not simply intruding into the characters’ lives, but into the reading experience. Often the most important individual only appears midway through a story, such as Verna, the mentally ill child in “Child’s Play”, whose entrance completely alters a story of infant friendship. Munro never lets the reader get settled. The unexpected turns in each narrative aim to disrupt and unnerve. For the striking—and deliberate—disunity evident in Too Much Happiness is not across the collection as a whole, but within each individual story.

Munro defies all the traditional definitions of the short story: for a start, they aren’t particularly short—although admittedly shorter than those in previous collections. Brander Matthews suggested over a century ago that “a short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of single emotions called forth by a single situation.” In 1979 Wendell Harris picked up on the same focal word in his definition: “a single memorable curve of action revealing a single memorable personality.” Munro dispenses entirely with singularity. If the short story is akin to synecdoche—the whole indicated by the part; the moment giving a glimpse of the life—then Munro is happy to break the rules. In the introduction to an earlier collection Munro stated that she doesn’t read books in the traditional fashion, from beginning to end, but “I start anywhere and proceed in either direction.” The same could be said of her writing. Not only does she play with leaps in time and narrative perspective, Munro consistently resists the neat structure predicated by Matthews and Harris.

“Fiction” is a key example of such unconventionality, as well as being perhaps the most interesting tale in Too Much Happiness. Like so many of Munro’s stories, it initially appears to tell a nuanced and subtle account of marital breakdown:

“We will ride this out,” she said.
Jon looked at her distantly, even kindly.
“There is no ‘we,’” he said.

Munro is unquestionably expert at capturing the minutiae of emotional responses, often letting unusual choices of adjectives and adverbs do this work: Jon and Joyce had previously agreed that “experimenting with various partners was childish, adultery was messy and destructive.” To take so common a literary staple as adultery and produce an original and poignant story would be achievement enough—but Munro seeks more. “Fiction” continues past the affair, shifting from past into present tense for the second section.

Joyce and Jon have both started new families. We are confronted with the mess of an extended family, at a party held by Matt and Joyce, “now a professional cellist and his third wife”. The story widens from the micro of Jon’s and Joyce’s marriage to a sort of macro, swallowing the characters’ specificity in a maelstrom of new figures. One of whom is Christie O’Dell, a mysterious authoress who (Joyce and the reader later realise) played a significant role in Joyce’s past. In the hands of another author, especially a modernist short story writer like, say, Katherine Mansfield, this would have been the pivotal moment, structuring “Fiction”. Instead, Munro shifts back and forth. The lengthy backstory has already been given in full; the narrative also continues forward. Joyce’s epiphany isn’t permitted to be the crux of a story which deliberately resists form and structure. The final line is even slyly postmodern: “This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell some day. She wouldn’t be surprised.” Another slightly self-conscious moment for Munro, and one which pulls the rug from under the reader’s feet.

This pattern is repeated throughout the collection: there are many memorable personalities, and exquisite delineations of character, but few stories have a “single memorable curve of action”. Instead, Munro opens out to disclose whole lives—as much as she can squeeze in 30 or so pages.

There is a risk that, in avoiding a climax, Munro also avoids anything pertinent. Rarely does she fall into this trap—only, perhaps, with “Wood”, which never gets going, or the sprawling title story which is disconcertingly out of kilter with the rest of the collection in terms of length, period, and theme. These shortfalls, however, make the reader all the more impressed when Munro succeeds. Although naturally she has no room to attempt a Bildungsroman in every story, Munro yet seems to offer lives rather than moments, refusing to curtail her panoramic view. In playing with the short story genre, Munro invents a formless form appropriate to her superlative talent as an observer of human nature and human interaction.

“Safely settled inside the gates of Literature”? Munro is certainly settled inside them, but there is nothing safe about her stories, least of all where the reader is concerned.

Simon Thomas is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford.