Alice Munro once insisted, “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a short story.” On another occasion, she used a metaphor to describe this short-story excitement. “I can get a kind of tension when I’m writing a short story, like I’m pulling on a rope and I know where the rope is attached. With a novel, everything goes flabby.” Munro says she doesn’t seem to be able to write in any other way. “I guess that’s why I don’t write a novel. God knows I still keep trying. But there always comes a point where everything seems to be getting really flat. You don’t feel the tension…I don’t feel this pulling on the rope to get to the other side that I have to feel.” Munro added, “People have suggested this is because I want to be able to manage everything and that I fear loss of control…. I have to agree that I fear loss of control. But I don’t think it’s anything as simple as that.”
Munro has said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.” She admits that the word “feeling” is not very precise, but that if she tries to be more intellectually respectable she will be dishonest. Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” “What I like is not to really know what the story is all about. And for me to keep trying to find out.” What makes a story interesting, she says, is the “thing that I don’t know and that I will discover as I go along.
I have written about Munro in more detail in another place, especially the common critical view (mistaken, I think) that Munro’s stories are “novelistic’ (“Why Does Alice Munro Write Short Stories?” Wascana Review 38 (2003): 16-28. I did a blog entry on the story “Wenlock Edge” in this new collection last February). I will thus only raise one issue about this new book—the thematic significance of the title, which originated with Munro’s discovery of the 19th-century Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky while looking for something else in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The title story focuses on the last few days before Kovalevsky died of pneumonia contracted during a cold wet trip from Paris to Stockholm, where she held a chair in mathematics, the first woman to hold such a professorship in European history. Kovalevsky’s seemingly contradictory talents led Munro to a biography by Don H. Kennedy and his wife entitled Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky (1983), which quotes Kovalevsky’s last words at four o’clock in the morning on February 10, 1891: “Too much happiness.” Kovalevsky has been looking forward to the future, having received recognition for her work in an era when woman were not thought to be capable of higher mathematical thinking. She is also happily anticipating her forthcoming marriage to Maxsim Kovalesky, a distant relation and a professor of law--a great bear of a man who offers her comfort and security. Although the title of the story may suggest that Kovalevsky has so much happiness her death is a tragedy, it also may suggest her acceptance of the fact that happiness cannot be separated from unhappiness.
Indeed, the inextricability of happiness and unhappiness may be the thematic web that Munro weaves throughout many of the stories in this collection, especially since several reviewers have already suggested that there is much more violence in these stories than in Munro’s previous work: Two young girls murder an abhorred playmate; a man kills his children because he thinks his wife has walked out on him; a woman dying of cancer is threatened in her home by a man who has murdered his family. However, in keeping with the theme of “too much happiness,” or happiness bound up with unhappiness, the horror in these stories is often balanced by some compensatory acceptance. For example in “Dimensions,” although the central character’s insane bullying husband has killed their children, she understands that he knows their life and their children better than anyone else and goes to visit him in an asylum. Moreover, the story ends with a random rescue and a kind of personal salvation that seems somehow poetically just.
“Free Radicals” is also about a bittersweet confrontation that ends with poetic justice. The central character who has cancer and whose husband has recently died, has her home invaded by a man who shows her pictures of his parents and sister that he has recently murdered. In spite of the fact that she knows the cancer will kill probably her, she clings to life and tries to gain the intruder’s sympathy by telling him how she has been guilty of a crime in her past. However, the story is a lie, a fiction in which she takes on the role of her husband’s wronged first wife who is going to poison the other woman. Telling her that what he did was not so underhanded as what she did, the murderer leaves, only to be killed in a car accident.
Although in the last forty years the short story has been characterized first by experimentation and then by attenuation, Alice Munro has continued to go her own way, so confident of the nature of the short story and her control of the form that she needs to observe no trends nor imitate no precursors.
ore polished and profound than she has ever been, Alice Munro is the preeminent practitioner of the short story--and one of the most brilliant writers in any genre—in the world today. If there is any justice and judgment in matters literary, she should redeem the short story from its second-class status single-handedly.