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BOOKS: ‘Too Much Happiness’

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TOO MUCH HAPPINESS: STORIES
By Alice Munro
Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

As is the case with many of her more vivid characters, much is expected of Alice Munro because we know how much she can do. In 11 increasingly distinguished and acclaimed collections of short fiction, an impressively representative Selected Stories, and the early novel-in-stories Lives of Girls and Women, Ontario's Chekhov (a tribute long since become a clich) has illuminated the quotidian in scrupulously fashioned portrayals of love and marriage, childhood and parenting, the thirst for adventure contrasted with the comforts of familiarity, and the slow hard transformation of painstakingly acquired maturity into the confusions and sorrows of old age.

Having only infrequently ventured far beyond the grasp of her roots (notably in her previous collection The View from Castle Rock), this sedulous observer of the commonplace generally keeps close to what we've come to think of as her home territory: the sometimes thriving, too often moribund villages, farms and hopeful little cottage industries and kindred enterprises of rural Ontario. Perhaps she's less like Chekhov than like one of the reserved protagonists of his classic play "Three Sisters," occasionally contemplating escape from the embrace of the everyday while simultaneously fully invested and involved in the small but scarcely inconsequential world around her.

This is not to say that Alice Munro's chronicles of (mostly) female experience — that title "Lives of Girls and Women" hangs over her oeuvre like a homemade neon sign — strike us as parochial or otherwise limited. Evidence of the continuing boldness of her work abounds in "Too Much Happiness," a consistently engrossing gathering of nine precisely, thoughtfully wrought stories and an irresistibly affecting title novella.

Several varieties of boldness appear, in fact, in no fewer than three stories that involve murders and several others that feature to a degree seldom encountered in her fiction adultery, betrayal, robbery, physical abuse and related cruelty, grievous illness, masochism and suicide. These are stories that often deal with the ends of lives approaching, and they do not flinch from showing us at our weakest and worst.

The grimness of such material is given piercing clarity by the resolute simplicity and restraint of Ms. Munro's prose. She is the least ostentatious great writer presently at work, and she can raise hackles on the back of your neck with a precisely phrased unadorned verb or noun.

This technique is skillfully employed in such otherwise conventional stories as that of a furniture worker, distracted by family unhappiness, who sustains an injury while alone in the woods and barely survives ("Wood"); the virtually gothic story of the vicious persecution of a feebleminded girl by two of her fellow summer campers ("Child's Play"); and the depiction of a perpetually unhappy man eventually paralyzed by a lifetime of loneliness and parental cruelty endured ("Face"). Though none of these three merits comparison with their author's best work, each is energized and enriched by our gradual comprehension of the relationship of each story to the life of the person who tells it.

For individuals matter profoundly to this writer, even though she never neglects to show them firmly placed within the defining contexts of their communities and families.

In "Wenlock Edge," a primly self-assured college girl finds her emotional horizons expanded when her flamboyantly irresponsible roommate callously introduces her to a world of sexual hunger and exploitation. The protagonist's seeming indifference to her experience feels both obscure and teasingly interesting — as does that of the girl who narrates "Some Women," in which a dying young husband's victimization by an amoral masseuse leaves her who observed this sad spectacle to conclude only, in retrospect, that afterward "I grew up, and old."

The Munro magic is showcased brilliantly in the five remaining stories. "Free Radicals" presents a widowed cancer patient (Nita) who defuses the anger of a violent intruder by calmly hearing his self-serving "confession" then telling him a fabricated story of her own errors and "crimes." The survival instinct she embodies also appears in the young mother (of "Deep-Holes") whose insistence — despite the objections of her scientist husband — on breast-feeding her babies endows her with both a false sense of intimate identification with her loved ones and the consolation of accepting as much as life is willing to give back to her.

A grave beauty emerges from the fine story ("Dimensions") of the longsuffering wife (Doree) of the insane husband who murdered their three children, who quietly continues to tend even to his needs — until an astonishing act of God arrives as what may well be a blessed release from suffering. And a novel's worth of incident and emotion is artfully compacted into "Fiction," in which an adulterer's victim lives with her losses, finds a grain of peace in stories told by another blameless victim, even managing to accept the harsh paradoxical possibility that "the great happiness … of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another."

Finer still is the title novella, a moving threnody-in-progress based on the life of a historical figure: 19th-century mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalesky, whom we encounter near the end of her life, when she is living in exile in Italy then France, first with her lover, then alone and fatally ill. In a possible homage to, and reimagining of Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Ms. Munro creates a resplendent image of a brilliant woman content with even the least of her achievements, at last freed from the struggle to assert and establish herself in the eyes of a world reluctant to celebrate the deeds of women.

There may be a hint here of Alice Munro's opinion of others' opinions of her and her work, but that scarcely matters. The work tells its own story, with the calm authority of a village taleteller who scorns to raise her voice, merely proving again and again and again that she knows us better than we know ourselves. She always has.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer who lives and writes in Kittery, Maine.

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