Darkness at noon

In this latest collection from a short story master, bleakness overwhelms hints of light

(Pierre Mornet)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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In her mastery of the short story Alice Munro fashions a 24-hour day. There are nighttimes in her work, but the daylight lasts longer and, though struggling, it struggles harder.

Her new collection, “Too Much Happiness,’’ does not follow this pattern. With two exceptions, it is not just dark but of a dark extremity. Madness, murder, perversion occur in several stories; in others, the violence is internal and more abstract, but the movement is down and unredeemed.

None of it is framed as melodrama, and this makes it almost harder to take. Munro has an unsurpassed gift for infusing her nightmares into the calm if complex realism of life as we think it to be. Accordingly, the dark extremities in these stories are not extraordinary but almost matter-of-fact, a kind of relentless environmental degradation.

The first story, “Dimensions,’’ begins with a young woman taking a grueling succession of bus rides to visit her husband in a mental institution. Paranoid, controlling, and increasingly violent in their marriage, he had retaliated when she found brief refuge with a woman friend by killing their two children.

Totally bereft, she finds pitiful hope in letters he writes from the hospital insisting that, though dead, the children are still with him. Hope does not redeem horror; horror contaminates it.

In “Free Radicals,’’ a madman erupts into the house of a widow stricken by incurable cancer. He shows her a photograph of his parents and sister, whom he has just murdered, bloodily, for some perceived offense. She causes him to flee by out-horrifying him with the claim that she had poisoned a woman who stole her husband. She was no innocent making a clever escape, though: It was she who had stolen husband from wife, destroying a whole life of trusting partnership.

In “Wenlock Edge,’’ a student is encouraged by her roommate to have dinner with her lover. He is a rich old man who makes her strip, sit naked during the meal and, still naked, read to him from A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad’’ before sending her home, intact yet polluted. She takes revenge: not on him nor the roommate but on a middle-aged cousin who had befriended her. There is a reason, but it’s almost irrelevant. The point is that pollution spreads inexorably.

“Child’s Play’’ tells of the cruelty of two young girls toward a mentally handicapped girl who trails after them at camp. Munro writes it retrospectively when the two are old and have gone utterly different ways - one becoming a conventional housewife, the other a free-spirited writer. At the end we learn of their girlhood crime. Much of the story displays Munro’s usual skill and complexity, though the crime, foreseen by the reader, seems forced and gratuitous.

Other stories bear their bleakness less violently. A boy, severely injured in a fall at a family picnic, humiliates his mother years later. A man defaced by a birthmark tells lightly of his successful life, until he comes to a childhood incident when a girl, his constant companion, painted her face to imitate his deformity. Mistaking it for mockery, he furiously drove her away. But it was love, and years later she comes to him with a proof so grotesque that it obliterates the touching intention. Brightness falls from the air in these late Munro stories; darkness remains.

“Wood,’’ the penultimate piece, revives her characteristic balance of chiaroscuro (the “chiaro,’’ up to this point, had been missing). A furniture restorer’s passion for wood leads him to partly neglect his work to go into the forest and cut down dead specimens. He sells them for firewood, but it is the direct encounter with trees that entrances him. Munro writes of a dozen different kinds of bark, of the careful steps involved in safely felling the trees with a thrilling detail that suggests her woodman’s mystical, life-lifting passion.

The last and title story is something quite different. Munro has made a sparkling work of fiction out of a bit of history: the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, a late 19th-century Russian mathematician whose brilliance won her international honors and whose gender excluded her from a professorship. Finally the University of Uppsala, run by far-sighted Swedes, gave her an appointment.

Kovalevsky, who also wrote novels, emerges as a fascinating and beguilingly rounded figure, in love with a hugely boisterous Russian aristocrat lavish in his affection for her and his delight in other women. There is a moving portrait of her mentor, a German mathematician who generously promotes her superior talent, and of his two sisters who take severe and loving care of them both. There is the circle of political radicals involved in the brief Paris Commune government, one of whom marries her sister; and finally an endless, haunting train trip north to Sweden during which Sophia falls fatally ill.

“Too Much Happiness’’ is a title that entirely fits this long story whose sadness is a living part of human variousness and splendor. It is entirely a contrast with the harshness of most of the other stories. One that Munro inflicts perhaps purposefully, and perhaps to denounce a bleak contemporary emptiness for which she can no longer muster her chiaroscuro.

Richard Eder writes reviews for several publications.

By Alice Munro
Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95

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