"Too Much Happiness: Stories," By Alice Munro, Alfred A. Knopf; 304 pages; $25.95
Alice Munro has done it again. Now nearing 80, the Canadian author - winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize - keeps getting better.
For five decades, Munro has written mostly short stories, quietly breaking every rule with glorious results. One common definition of the short story is that it should focus on a single turning point in a person's life. But Munro goes further, following her characters into the future after their lives have been shattered, in cool prose that never falters, no matter how impossible the subject.
Take "Dimensions," the opening story in her new collection, "Too Much Happiness," about a woman whose husband murdered their children after she left the house during a marital tiff one night. While this sounds like the stuff of tabloids, Munro makes it agonizingly real, penetrating the heart of this poor woman, who was so isolated that she failed to recognize her husband's insanity.
Now working as a chambermaid, her identity disguised, she visits him in the institution, where he tells her that he has seen the children, who still exist in another dimension. As she keeps returning to listen to him rant, the reader wonders if she is feeding off his fantasy.
The real reason for her visits becomes clear only near the end of the story: "Who but Lloyd would remember the children's names now, or the color of their eyes." And who but Munro could deliver this epiphany so plainly that it is all the more devastating - the truth stripped bare.
Munro's prose is so unadorned that readers sometimes mistake her for a quiet writer of uneventful stories. But drama churns beneath the surface of her deceptively calm prose.
In "Free Radicals," a young man forces his way into the home of a recent widow, terrorizing her by showing off a photograph of his elderly parents and sister, after he blew off their heads. The widower happens to be in the late stages of cancer, and at first she thinks about "how her cancer freed her, put her out of danger." But a few pages later, she realizes that "the fact that she was going to die within a year refused to cancel out the fact that she might die now."
Her fear leads her to tell the man a story about an incident from her own past, trying to get him to identify with her and spare her life. Munro doesn't peel away the layers so much as blast them off, getting at the core of who people are in revelations as frightening as the actions precipitating them. She allows no linguistic pretense, denying her characters any self-deception.
In the wonderful "Fiction," a woman learns that a painful episode from her life has gone into someone else's writing and is disappointed to find that it's part of a book of stories and not a novel, "making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature." This is Munro commenting on the marginalized craft she has been honing for half a century.
Munro's stories are often likened to novels because they track vast spans of time and leave such a lasting impression. But unlike novels, her stories don't resolve neatly, making them all the more unsettling. At the beginning of "Deep Holes," a little boy falls into a crater on a family picnic. His stern geologist father saves his life but fails to love him, leaving a deep hole that nothing can fill, which causes the grown man to reject everything from his past.
Munro excels at creating characters pushed to the fringes of society. The title story in the collection tracks the final days in the life of 19th century mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky, whose exceptional intellect and pioneering spirit made her as lonely as the contemporary cult members and criminals with whom she shares these pages.
"Too Much Happiness" is an ironic title for a collection that is so full of pain. The most devastating story in the bunch is undoubtedly "Child's Play," about two girls who work each other into a frenzy of revulsion against a disabled child at their summer camp, culminating in one of the most chilling scenes in recent literature.
There is no doubt that Alice Munro stands firmly behind those "gates of Literature." Her canvas may be small, but her brush strokes are fine, her vision encompasses humanity from its most generous to its most corrupt, and the effect is nothing short of masterful. Let's hope she has many more stories in her.