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PND: 'Too Much Happiness' by Alice Munro ()

No Such Thing As 'Too Much' Alice Munro

Dec 30, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Though I am not the kind of reader or short-story writer who puts much stock in exposition, I sit still for Alice Munro's expository passages every time. She lays down such seemingly ordinary but useful sentences, one after another after another, that though I come to scoff, I stay to marvel.

Munro's expositions hold worlds of story material in themselves. Take this passage, near the opening of a story in her new collection, Too Much Happiness, called "Fiction":

In their first year at college they dropped out of their classes and ran away together. They got jobs here and there, traveled by bus across the continent, lived for a year on the Oregon coast, were reconciled, at a distance, with their parents, for whom a light had gone out in the world ...

"Fiction" has an odd shape, the past first presented as present, and then springing us in to the female character's future that packs a force only the sharpest observation can produce. The ironies of living a long life, with all of its twists and turns, abound in this story, including the main character's initial disdain for the short-story form itself. When she purchases a copy of a story collection, she scoffs:

A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside ...

Munro has a little fun with herself here. Is there anyone writing short fiction today in English who has more authority? But as safely settled inside the gates of literature as she may be, she advances her art in this current collection, with its cast of lovers and losers, husbands and widows, scientists, female geniuses who solve difficult math problems and also write novels, and people who labor with their hands.

In "Wood," we learn about the bite of a life working with bark.

"Ironwood, that heavy and reliable firewood," Munro writes, "has a shaggy brown bark ... Cherry is the blackest tree in the bush, and its bark lies in picturesque scales ... Ash is a soldierly tree with a corduroy-ribbed trunk ..."

The descriptions go on. And if this is what she does with the trees in the stories that make up Too Much Happiness, you can imagine what she does with the people.

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