Too Much Happiness: Stories
by Alice Munro
Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95
Of writers who have made the short story their métier, and whose accumulated work constitutes entire fictional worlds—William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor come most notably to mind—Alice Munro is the most consistent in style, manner, content, vision. From the first, in such aptly titled collections as Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) and Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Munro exhibited a remarkable gift for transforming the seemingly artless—”anecdotal”—into art; like the short-story writers I have mentioned, Munro concentrated upon provincial, even backcountry lives, in tales of domestic tragicomedy that seemed to open up, as if by magic, into wider, deeper, vaster dimensions:
So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.
(“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” Dance of the Happy Shades)
Though Munro has set stories elsewhere—Toronto, Vancouver, Edinburgh, and the Ettrick Valley of Scotland; even, in this new volume, Russia and Scandinavia—her favored setting is rural, small-town southwestern Ontario. This region of Canada, settled by Scotch Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists from the north of England, has been characterized by frugality, rigidly “moral” principles, and Christian piety of the most severe, judgmental sort; a dour Protestantism that has inspired what has been called Southern Ontario Gothic—a heterogeneous category of writers that includes Robertson Davies, Marian Engel, Jane Urquhart, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Gowdy, in addition to Alice Munro.
Like the American rural South, where Protestantism has flourished out of very different roots, the straitlaced xenophobic Anglo-Canadian culture nonetheless throws up all sorts of “queer streaks” and “fits”—lesions in the carapace of uniformity that provide the writer with the most extraordinary material. Munro’s “A Queer Streak” describes the consequences of a fourteen-year-old’s bizarre threatening letters written to her own family; “Fits” recounts what happened after a murder and suicide within the family of the wife and mother who discovered the corpses. How to explain such a domestic tragedy, in the house next door?
What this is like…it’s like an earthquake or a volcano. It’s that kind of happening. It’s a kind of fit. People can take a fit like the earth takes a fit. But it only happens once in a long while. It’s a freak occurrence.
(“Fits,” The Progress of Love)
Possibly not, Munro suggests. Possibly not a “freak” occurrence at all.
In her new, thirteenth collection of short fiction, Too Much Happiness—a title both cuttingly ironic and passionately sincere, as the reader will discover—Munro explores themes, settings, and situations that have come to seem familiar …