Monday, December 23, 2013

Review | Too Much Happiness

I'm really beginning to doubt whether or not it was wise to start my literary relationship with Alice Munro through Too Much Happiness. As a collection it is surprisingly strong, but though I recognized an obvious brilliance to Munro's writing (something which is often lacking in Nobel laureates, oddly enough), I didn't feel quite the emotional resonance I was expecting. It'll come, I'm certain - unlike an author like Mo Yan (who will take me a long time to revisit...) or an author like Herta Müller (with her depth and quiet pounding who can only be visited on rare, carefully planned occasions) - I have every intention of reading another of Munro's collections within the coming months.

The stories in Too Much Happiness generally follow the same idea - characters' lives revolving around a before-and-after pivot. These pivots are misleadingly quiet plot points, usually so calmly dealt with they almost lose their whiplash strength. These are not quiet events - divorce and death and children and love - but they lack the grandeur and pomp many other writers would ascribe to them. In "Fiction", the pivot is most strongly felt by a chapter-like division, giving us the set-up and then an entirely different story in the second half. Or the powerful opening story "Dimensions", which has reveals the backstory in bits, then all at once.

With the exception of the titular "Too Much Happiness" (the final story in the collection and by far the weakest - I'll get to it in a moment), each of the stories seemed to strike me like a punch while I was reading them, then leave behind a mildly bitter aftertaste (except "Dimensions", which simply left me speechless and almost physically winded), and then appear remarkably clearly in retrospect. Looking back on the stories a couple weeks later, I'm reminded of the characters and their lives. I'm reminded of Munro's absolutely clean writing. The stories have stuck, even if it seemed for a short time like they might not. They still don't scream, but they've firmly pushed their way to the front. They will not be forgotten so easily.

Weierstrass was last semester 
My main struggle with the collection on the whole comes from the final story - "Too Much Happiness". This, it should seem, would be right up my alley, telling the story of Sophia Kovalevsky, a mathematician in the late 19th century (with extra Weierstrass references!). But it's not. The back cover describes this one as being about Sophia's "yearnings", but if so, her yearnings are decidedly dull. "Too Much Happiness" is too long, too clumsy in its characterizations (namely, its lack of it - the previous story "Wood" managed to make me significantly more emotionally invested in the struggles of its lead than the almost-sprawling-by-comparison "Too Much Happiness". It's a story that seemed hemmed in by its own ambitions of telling a bigger story, but also hindered by a lack of space in which to grow and breathe. The story is also unique in that Munro seems to be experimenting with a different writing style (a bit more old-fashioned, less coolly detached and more dramatically involved). It's a nice idea, but I don't think it worked particularly well within the story, and certainly not within the rest of the collection. Much less as the closing story.

All in all, I liked Too Much Happiness. I wasn't blown away by it (no absolute adoration here) but I appreciated it very much. After hearing so much about Munro's stellar writing, it was a joy to experience it myself, and the multi-layered strength of her stories will stick with me for a while longer. It may not turn out to be Munro's best collection, but Too Much Happiness certainly made me want to read more of her stories... perhaps it wasn't such a bad introduction after all.

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