Alice Munro has seemingly been old and wise since her earliest days of her writing, and with every collection of piercing short stories, she seems to grow older and wiser. It’s easy to conceive of her sitting on a park bench, picking up snippets of conversation, nodding sagely to herself, and turning those snippets into intimate epics of the unexpressed human soul. Her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, doesn’t stray far from the Munro model, but that model is already pretty close to perfect.
The collection’s high point, “Fiction,” might be the best thing she’s ever done. It employs all her favorite devices—the use of a memory as a catalyst for events, a narrative that leaps between past and present, characters having quiet revelations that shake them to their cores—but it pins all this to a tale of a marriage-ending affair that Munro manages to examine through at least four viewpoints without ever leaving the main POV of the embittered ex-wife. It’s a marvelous piece of writing on a purely technical level, but Munro seeds every sentence with the ache and longing inherent to the story’s emotional content.
If every other story in Too Much Happiness were somehow Munro’s worst, the collection would still be worth reading for “Fiction” alone, but that fortunately isn’t the case. The first nine stories here are all varying degrees of excellent, though there’s occasionally a sense of creeping sameness as Munro launches into yet another tale of a woman remembering an event she didn’t know would prove formative. Still, these events are always so unexpected, and Munro’s revelations are always so perfectly paced, that the structure never gets old. And even the collection’s weakest story—the eponymous, final one, which tries too hard to incorporate too much of its protagonist’s life, while giving only a glancing sense of the characters she encounters—is better than most short stories. Too Much Happiness has a few cracks in the foundations, but it’s largely a work of supreme observational power, employing Munro’s deft, controlled sentences in the service of essaying characters who don’t realize they’re living their lives on the brink until revelation rushes over them.