Too Much Happiness was my first foray into Alice Munro. I have to say: as a Nobel Prize-winning author, and a staple of the Canadian canon, I expected to like it. But I didn’t.
(This is the part where the authorities kick down my door and take away my citizenship.)
It’s not that I actively disliked it. I just didn’t really like it, either. There were funny parts and sad parts and shocking parts. There were parts that I think worked well. There were just a good many more parts that I don’t think worked at all.
This highlights a problem I’ve traditionally had with a lot of short story collections: these stories were not designed to go together. Sometimes short story collections hang together cohesively and well, and Andre Alexis’ Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa is a good example of this – see my review here. Instead, these stories overlap in an unflattering way. Too Much Happiness is a prime example of how bundling short stories together into a collection ultimately does them a disservice.
For example, some details and descriptions resurface multiple times, getting wearier and wearier with each repetition. Often the narrators are looking back on their lives, recalling events from childhood or early adulthood. As a result, these stories take on a dated sort of feel – taking place thirty or forty or fifty years ago, when so many things were different. Marriages break apart or refuse to come together, and both situations treated as calamities. Young narrators who try to make a go of being “a modern woman” – by being understanding about their husband’s affairs, or by boldly building careers around their passions – inevitably find themselves deeply unhappy. It would be generous to say that this window into another era is enlightening, or even interesting. It just feels musty. Outdated.
Other repeated tropes aren’t totally unlikeable. The cruelty of children, of adults, of strangers, of men renders them powerful and simultaneously powerless. Any fervent belief – religious, political, amorous – can be twisted into something menacing. Wishing for things has power. Small, petty injustices fester under the surface of complacent or even idyllic lives, rupturing forth to surprisingly little effect.
Here we find what proves to be the most effective and thoughtful theme that clarifies throughout this collection: we like to believe the past has a redemptive or hopeful power over the present, but this proves to be untrue. The first time Munro leads us to this idea, it seems revelatory – illuminating, and bright. But when it gets hammered home again and again – well. She comes off, at least a bit, as a one-trick pony. Which is disappointing.
A little like this collection. (You can take away my Canada membership now.)
This header photo of a William Morris fabric design available for use and editing through the Public Domain, originally accessed through Wikimedia Commons.