Too Much Happiness
By Alice Munro
In creative writing work-shops and lit classes, Alice Munro rivals O. Henry as The Short Story Writer whose work serves as a letter-perfect model of the genre. The ten stories in her new collection are as poignant, chilling and diagrammable as they come. Like a perfectSimpsons episode, a Munro story starts at point A, then does an elaborate dance before arriving, ever so gracefully, at point B, often stopping along the way for a life-altering revelation, or an inches-from-death showdown.
Munro works within the confines of a traditional storytelling model: conflict, rising action, climax, denouement, resolution. Why she is rightly regarded as a master of the form is her deliberate, suspenseful layering of characters and circumstances, which brings the reader into the realm of fear, and often downright panic: "Free Radicals" is practically a campfire story, in which a dangerous stranger shows up at the narrator's doorstep. Even her less explicitly frightening pieces—like "Fiction," a shaggy dog story that winds through the past, present and future of one character's life, answering some questions and leaving others a tormenting mystery—are infused with a tragically ephemeral feeling, that everything could change at any moment, and probably will.
Every story in Too Much Happiness is, in a sense, a life story. Munro never misses an opportunity to sum up an enormous existential truth in a couple of beautifully worded phrases. "In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places," she writes in "Face," which begins with a dysfunctional childhood and ends somewhere between nightmare and Shakespearean tragedy. It's as if the characters are reading along with these mini life lessons, emerging with enviable wisdom and perspective. "I grew up," concludes the narrator of "Some Women," an unsettling account of a brush with mortality, "and old." After all, Munro suggests, over and over again, what else is there to say?