TPR Challenge #5 - Alice Munro

It cannot be avoided, so I will just begin with it: this collection, Too Much Happiness, does not exactly deliver the goods its title seems to offer.  That is not to say the collection is not good; it is quite good.  But if happiness is what you seek, you should look elsewhere.

This book was my first encounter with Munro in book length (a scattered story here and there has crossed my awareness), and I'm glad to have experienced it.  But never in my reading did I approach a feeling akin to happiness.  Rather, the 10 stories collected here are dark, foreboding, and weighty, and they took me more time to read than I expected.  Munro is known for her fairly effortless style.  A lightness of touch that animates the anecdotal.  Here, though, that light touch has been applied in the darkest of tones, which creates an odd juxtaposition and a constantly unsettled feeling.  I commented the other day on "Wenlock Edge." It remains the story of the collection that affected me the most.  I'm not sure I could say it was the "best," but it left the deepest impression.  I'm not convinced it will ever let loose of me completely.  I'm not even sure what it changed exactly, but it is one that changed me.

The remaining selections were solid, but they have not lingered as individual pieces.  I did like the title story, based on the fascinating real life of mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky.  And four in succession in the middle ("Free Radicals," "Face," "Some Women," and "Child's Play") were thorough and intriguing in their quiet probing of difficult subject matter.  I do not think that I will remember them distinctly in 6 months time, though.  Instead, I walk away from her writing feeling convinced that she has said things about womanhood that are desperately important still today.  She speaks my dialect of the feminist tongue.  She is not abrasive, corrosive, aggressive, or hurtful.  But she speaks the truth with such a frankness that it cannot be doubted or assaulted.  It simply stands. 

I underlined very little in this text, (which is good because I found the deckle edge to be stupidly un-user-friendly for flipping to find notes), but I would still recommend this book (and perhaps Munro's work in general).  There are decidedly few passages that take your breath away for sheer craft, but the overall effect is one worth experiencing. 

As for the TPR interview, I feel it came too late in her career or perhaps too late in the world of literary interviews.  Maybe that is an insensitive remark, but she seems (at this point, 1994) too practiced at these type of interviews.  One of the great charms of the earliest TPR interviews is that they are so effortless, so informal, so much a peek into the untold sides of great minds.  Munro here seems a bit too accessible, too pre-packaged.  The one revealing bit was about her early suburban life, a time she says she hated so much she's "never been able to write about it."  She says,
In North Vancouver, the men all went away in the morning and came back at night.  There was a lot of informal togetherness, and it was hard to be alone.  There was a lot of competitive talk about vacuuming and washing the woolies, and I got quite frantic.  . . . This was much more narrow and crushing than the culture I grew up in.  So many things were forbidden - like taking anything seriously.  Life was very tightly managed as a series of permitted recreations, permitted opinions, and permitted ways of being a woman.
For some people, the phrase "hard to be alone" gestures at the difficulties one encounters when mired in loneliness.  For me, and apparently Munro, the greater and more tangible difficulty is that of getting to be alone.  I think here she is referring not merely to the physical reality of being without human companionship but to the ability to truly be alone with one's thoughts.  There is a depth and breadth to that kind of aloneness, and some of us crave and cultivate it.  Clearly, this part of her story set off alarm bells for me.  There's part of me that hopes she never releases this struggle to be written about; and another part that will definitely read it once she does.  

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