January 8, 2010

Too Much Happiness has all the beauty without the brains

Don’t be misled by the title of Alice Munro’s new collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness: These stories are anything but cheerful. In fact, they’re downright depressing, full of marital infidelities, drawn-out deaths, and traumatic childhoods. And yet, the stories are intensely lovely.

Munro, who recently won the Booker Prize for this volume, has perfected the lyrical gut-wrencher. As in her previous collections of short stories, Munro places her characters in beautiful, rural Canadian settings before tearing their lives apart with shocking spasms of violence, both physical and emotional. It’s a formula that consistently forces the reader into a profound sympathy with her characters, but for all its emotional clout, the narrative blueprint becomes monotonous after 300-plus pages.

Nine out of the 10 stories in Too Much Happiness are set in Canada’s recent past, with most taking place in Munro’s native Ontario. The descriptions of the Canadian landscape highlight Munro’s talent for spotting the crucial details that bring a story to life. The weeds in an abandoned garden, the composition of a rock formation, and the carved name of a long-shuttered bank are all closely observed, creating a strong sense of place and beauty.

Inside this sepia-colored world, women from the whole spectrum of Canadian society give up their senses of self for the men in their lives. In the first story of the collection, a young woman struggles to forgive her husband for a violent act of madness. Another story focuses on a girl who goes to extremes to look like the severely birth-marked boy next door. Munro’s women all discover, in one way or another, that “the great happiness…of one person can come out of the great unhappiness of another.” The tragedy is that the women in these stories all fall in the latter half of that equation.

Munro comes closest to doing something innovative in the book’s last story, which lends its name to the title of the whole collection. Taking place in the metropolises of 19th-century Europe, this story imagines the final days of Sophia Kovalevsky, the Russian mathematician and novelist. As she travels on a train across Europe, Kovalevsky reflects on her past and on her lovers. A mysterious doctor jolts her from her reverie, changing the course of her not-very-long life. On her deathbed, Kovalevsky’s last words are, “Too much happiness.” This leaves the reader with the question of whether this last woman is the only one to achieve happiness, or if she is deluded by her illness and is, at last, as miserable as the others.

By the end of the collection, the reader is left to wonder what Munro might accomplish if she were to try her hand at writing stories about women who suffer less. Would her lyricism be lost? Perhaps so, which is why one lesson to glean from Too Much Happiness is that Canadians suffer more beautifully than the rest of us.