Too Much Happiness
January 11, 2010
My newish-release book binge is still underway. I took up with the Munro collection Too Much Happiness again; the first story, “Dimensions,” had made me recoil temporarily (about a mother whose children were murdered by their father in a fit of spiteful madness–an excellent story but I’m a cowardly wreck about the subject matter since I had kids), but one can dip in and out of a story collection pretty easily. I often read short stories while I’m reading longer works, though I wouldn’t liken them to morsels and meals.
Monro’s stories are often verging on novella length, an unwieldy size for magazines, though I usually recognize several from a collection as having appeared in The New Yorker. They’re just as long as they need to be, and because they are what they are and she is who she is, the magazines make room for her. (The print magazines that have survived, anyhow. I hope when everything goes to screen stories don’t skew super-short just so no one has to scroll. Maybe the new e-readers will make that interface so silky that they revolutionize the form–no such thing as a “standard length” when print is not curtailing it, though I suppose attention span will retain its reductive influence.)
Even when she’s writing about extraordinary circumstances, Munro’s stories are radiant in their intimate dailiness. Usually there are marriages plural, and the attending complexity of glomming-on family. There are strong echoes from earlier collections–the privately grieving widow (“Free Radicals”), the mother coming to terms with estrangement from her child (“Deep-Holes”), and the naif who readily assents to perversity (“Wenlock Edge”) in these facile plot descriptions sound much like previous Munro stories, but she always wrings something fresh from them.
The title story, which closes the book, is somewhat of a departure, set in the 1890s and based on the extraordinary life of the Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. It put me a little in mind of Raymond Carver’s “Errand,” about the death of Chekov, though it ran deeper and wider, and when I think it through, the two may have had opposite effects entirely. “Errand” reduces the man to his final flesh-bound moments, while “Too Much Happiness” holds the glow of a life lived in its entirety.