Category Archives: Short story

Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

On so many levels, Alice Munro is my new favourite author. She has a clear gift with the subtleties of language and she can carve a story out of experiences as still as rocks. Her collection ‘Too Much Happiness’ is in every way perfect. It resonates, it shocks, it reveals and exposes. It is raw and sensitive, immense and austere. As Leah Hagar Cohen from the NYT Sunday Book Review writes: “Here the nominally momentous event is little more than an anteroom to an echo chamber filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations.”

The only thing not going for Munro is that she writes short stories and here I have to confess again my own bias. Reading this collection I was so sad that Munro hadn’t written a novel, a gigantic overwhelming epic tome with characters who existed beyond the 30 pages of a short story. I confess I was sad. Sad that everything ended, sometimes in the midst of things; sad that I had taken a journey that was consistently cut short and perhaps it is this that is at the core of my dislike for the short story as a genre.

Nonetheless, I persevered. I read this collection and there were many moments which reminded me of what literary brilliance actually is and should be. Munro is a wizard and now that I have seen her interviewed on YouTube this has only been confirmed. I shuddered through some of her stories, shuddered at the way she could tell them without sounding too attached to the tragedy and the drama and the overwhelming emotion. And, I marvelled (still do) at how too much happiness can amount to so little …

If you like the short story as a genre then Munro is a must. If you are like me and can’t bring yourself to love this genre then you should read Munro anyway, just to bask in her glow.

New York Times Review

The Time Literary Supplement Review

The Globe and The Mail Review (Anne Enright)

Alice Munro

How is it that I have never before read Alice Munro? How is it possible that I have missed such awe inspiring brilliance? I am stumped. Baffled. I feel as though I have suddenly discovered all that I am lacking in my appreciation of literature, of texts in general. What else am I missing out on? I shudder to think!

Alice Munro and short stories to boot (you will recall that this is my least favorite genre)!

“When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for a bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.
But maybe it was better that she had gone on, and seen him so strange and wasted. Not a person worth blaming for anything. Not a person. He was like a character in a dream.
She had dreams. In one dream she had run out of the house after finding them, and Lloyd had started to laugh in his old easy way, and then she had heard Sasha laughing behind her and it had dawned on her, wonderfully, that they were all playing a joke.”

In this first story of her collection Too Much Happiness, Munro has carved a fluid, simple and wonderfully vivid and intense narrative without being overwhelming. She has danced around this story in a way that clearly indicates her skill and alacrity. She is subtle with a sense of integrity or perhaps, even, innocence or naïveté?

Clearly, Munro’s ability to manipulate the flow and style of this genre sets her apart from so many other short story writers who have, in the past, so defined this genre for me.

Am I allowed to confess that I possibly enjoy Munro more than Woolf in this genre?

The Landlord, Wells Tower

Unbeknown to me, Wells Tower is a Canadian born writer just one year older than me. He is well published and recognized for his talents.

His story, The Landlord, featured in The New Yorker’s special section on writers under 40, had many good points. The characters were quite solidly sculpted and the tone of the narrative was believable. The story flowed relatively well and was engaging enough that I made to the end without getting distracted by the other books that I am reading.

However (there’s always a but), in many ways, this story clarified for me why I don’t like short stories. The protagonist, a property owner heading toward financial disaster, has relationships with all these diverse characters who aren’t fully realised – both in terms of their identities and in terms of the relationships themselves. There is the carpenter, Todd Toole, a loathsome individual, recognised as vulgar and irritating and his apprentice Jason, young and naive. There is the protagonist’s daughter, Rhoda, a strangely disturbed individual, who we gather has many buried issues which would clearly benefit from further exploration. She is an unfinished character and her relationship with her father is unsatisfactorily explored. The protagonist realises this and comments on it and perhaps it is a way for Tower to explore the very complexity that haunts this father/daughter disconnect. However, for the reader, it leaves too much lacking.

The most interesting of all the characters in this story is the first one that we meet: Armando Colón.

At ten-thirty, Armando Colón comes to my office. It lifts my mood to see him. Armando lives in one of the worst properties I own, an apartment complex so rife with mold and vermin that, when I sent a man to clean a vacant unit there, he developed an eye infection that didn’t clear up for a month. You would never know it to look at Armando. His shirt is crisp, his stomach is trim, and his hairline is freshly razored into aristocratic darts. He operates a squeezeball with his right hand. His cologne, applied with restraint, has a wholesome cedar scent, and his presence in the stale air of my office is a force of orderliness and industry.

Colón is a fascinating character. The way that Tower describes him is intriguing and I was immediately captivated by the possibilities of his contribution to this narrative. Unfortunately, after his appearance in the opening, he disappears – quite literally. His absence almost becomes a signifier of something deeper that is occurring in the protagonist’s life at large …

There is no doubt that this story is well written and in terms of language and structure it is worth the read. Yet, for me, it left me wanting more … more substance, more texture, more emotion. I am not sure if this makes sense … perhaps if you read the story you’ll be able to add to my comments …

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I know that I have stated elsewhere that short stories are not really my thing, that I have not managed to find them engaging. Well, The New Yorker magazine seems to have conspired to encourage me to revisit this genre with their 20 under 40 feature.

I was captivated immediately by Adichie, a favourite of mine, and her short story Birdsong. Adichie is a fabulous writer, renown for engaging with complex and confronting themes, weaving them through her narratives with awe inspiring skill. Her work almost always deals with the position of women, projecting a feminist bent that is clearly part of Adiche’s subtextual intent.

This story is classic Adichie. Set in Lagos, the tale follows the plight of a young woman romantically involved with a wealthy married man. Pushed into the shadows of the margin, quite literally, this woman is subjected to the humiliation of the secrecy surrounding her relationship with this man that readers know only as “my lover”. She is positioned in this way as the unrecognized Other, existing only for her lover on his terms, fashioned out of his language and expectations.

Adichie manufactures this tale around two tenses: the present tense where the female protagonist is trapped in traffic and the past, where she recollects her involvement with “her lover” and the humiliation that it left her with. This structure and the swift switches between past and present facilitate the type of musing which leaves readers reflecting upon the decisions that we make and the manner in which they impact upon our lives. As the protagonist recounts, she is far more aggressive in the present than she was in the past and this implies an underlying process of self development and self confidence in her identity and her position: “we know the rules and we follow them, and we never make room for things we might not have imagined. We close the door too soon.”

Adichie’s language in this story is so intricate that the reader cannot help but be totally immersed in every aspect of the narrative, overwhelmed by the raw emotions of the characters. When the protagonist feels “as though bits of my skin had warped and cracked and peeled off leaving patches of raw flesh so agonizingly painful I did not know what to do” the reader feels it too. When she realises with stark clarity the reality of the “rituals of distrust” that surround her relationship with her lover and in turn with herself, readers are equally moved to empathize with her struggle.

By the story’s end, readers desperately want this protagonist to leap out of her car in the traffic jam and proclaim herself, her feminity, her magnificence, for all the world to see. In some small way, the telling of this story is Adichie’s own proclamation.

A must read.