The distant-disappearing-dying-dismissible men of Too Much Happiness
Alice Munro’s work is among the most evocative and insightful writing in the English language. Readers speak of her stories “haunting” them and of their “depth, wisdom and precision.” I picked up 2009’s Too Much Happiness not long ago with the hope of learning a bit from the master about how to construct such a story. Lessons were on every page. Dramatic tension initiated with taught foreshadowing. Unhurried weaving of backstory combined with a general economy of words. Elegant shifts between now and then. Dialogue as dialogue, not a substitute for narrative.
And then there’s the men. In a collection of 10 stories, Munro introduces us to one (1) filicidal maniac and one (1) patri-/marti-/sororicidal mass murderer; two (2) husbands and one (1) fiancé who are unfaithful; one (1) husband who is dying and three (3) who are killed off unceremoniously early on; one (1) husband who is honorable but insignificant; one (1) male narrator whose father heartlessly dismisses him because of a birthmark; one (1) male protagonist who is emotionally distant and is rescued by a woman; one (1) story that has no men at all.
The recurring theme is striking: unsympathetic, unreliable, dying, disappearing, or dismissible men. At best, her men are effective foils for her female protagonists. At worst they are womanizers or murders. This is not to suggest that Munro’s women are all saints. They are flawed, damaged, struggling. But those at the center of her stories are multifaceted, fully fleshed people, at least within the context of the story. They reflect, observe, act, react. For the most part, the men, one way or another, simply leave—often rather abruptly and without much explanation because, well, it’s just what men do, apparently.
In Fiction, the protagonist’s husband, Jon, cheats on and eventually leaves her. Well after the fact, the protagonist talks to her girlfriends about what happened. “She has friends now to whom she can talk like this. They all have stories….Men. What they do. It’s sick and stupid. You can’t believe it.”
In Deep Holes, the protagonist’s somewhat insensitive husband, who despite this shortcoming is sketched as a stand-up guy who can be counted on, is abruptly killed off half way through the story. “He went to the hospital for an operation…on the day he was supposed to come home he died.” Just before the father’s death, the protagonist’s oldest son, Kent, leaves in similar style. “But after six months of college Kent disappeared.” Kent reappears and disappears as a main thread through the rest of Deep Holes.
In Free Radicals, the protagonist’s husband has left his first wife for her, but is dead before the events in the story take place. “He died bent over the sidewalk sign that stood out in front of the hardware store, offering a discount on lawn mowers.”
No matter how inconsequential to the story, Munro’s men have either never married or marry multiple times. They never marry once and stick.
The father of a male protagonist fairs no better. In Face, the father is psychologically abusive to his young son and then unceremoniously dies three pages into the story. “He had a stroke while still in his fifties, and died after several months in bed.”
Some Women is a story that revolves around four women caring for a man dying of leukemia. He is wasting away in bed as the story opens and barely has a role until his decisive act at the end that ripples through the women’s relationships. At that point in the story, he is no longer a man but an obliterated prize. “…it was strange to think of the almost obliterated prize, Mr. Crozier—and to think that he could have had the will to make a decision, even to deprive himself, so late in life.” As a reader, it is strange to think of this man—who barely has a presence in the story—as acting at all.
Ironically, in the one story based on historical characters it is the female protagonist, Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, who dies. Yet consistent with so many of the other stories, her fiancé Maksim Maksimovich Kovelevsky is elusive, distant, probably unfaithful, drifting through the story like a ghost. She is traveling to marry him, but dies before they are reunited. At her funeral—despite the happiness she had anticipated at their coming together—he doesn’t acknowledge that they were to be husband and wife. “He arrived in time to speak at her funeral, in French, referring to Sophia rather as if she had been a professor of his acquaintance…” His lack of emotional attachment is confounding.
What to make of Ms. Munro’s men? First, it is important to note that Too Much Happiness is ten stories in a single collection from a Nobel Prize-winning writer whose career has spanned six decades and includes over a dozen story collections. So, it would be ill-advised of me to suggest that the preponderance of distant, disappearing, or dead mean in this collection makes any general statement about Ms. Munro’s disposition toward the men in her stories. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that at least during the time that she was constructing this collection the writer maintained fairly low expectations of her male characters. They rarely amount to more than foils or types, even in the stories where they are featured performers.
In Wood, for example, Roy gets the lead. He is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He refurbishes furniture for a living and logs trees on area properties for extra money. His wife Lea is part of a large clan that likes to gather. Roy’s response? “So when they chose to gather at his house for a Sunday, he got into the habit of getting up and going out to the shed…” In short, he disappeared. He’s a loner. Strong and silent. A classic male type.
Lea “liked Roy the way he was,” so there’s no tension between them as a couple as a result of his distance; it’s just the way he is. Then Lea becomes ill and begins to fade away, both her body and her once gregarious personality. Roy wants his old wife back, “…but there’s nothing he can do, except be patient with this grave, listless woman…” So Roy retreats to the forest.
At this point the story is filled with details about trees and how to log them. The bush, or forest, becomes a metaphor for the dark mysteries of the inner self. Roy notices “…something about the bush that he thinks he has missed those other times. How tangled up inside itself it is, how dense and secret.” So there is some depth to his character. There is a person there among the tangle of trees. Except Munro doesn’t give him much opportunity to emerge. Instead, he is injured in the forest, drags himself out and, just as a buzzard is circling, he is saved by Lea—his broken, depleted wife musters energy enough to come to his rescue.
The scene presents an opportunity for the detached loner to recognize that his salvation is his connection to this other person. But he’s not sure if Lea has really returned to him for good or if this is just a temporary surge of energy. As he contemplates this, an interesting thing happens: Roy reveals himself a Munro man. "But even if it is for good, even if it’s all good there’s something more. Some loss fogging up his gain. Some loss he’d be ashamed to admit to, if he had the energy."
Call it happiness, contentment, connection or even something as mundane as commitment—whatever the word—so many of Munro’s men, the ones she doesn’t kill off, are missing this gene. They don’t seem to believe in anything, really. It is stated directly in Wood that “Lea liked Roy the way he was, so she didn’t reproach or apologize for him.” What is attributed to Roy is that he “misses the wife he was used to, with her jokes and energy.” Not someone he liked or loved, but someone he was used to. Such are Munro’s men: half here, half not. Dying or soon to be dead. Married but soon to be divorced. Appearing then disappearing.
I finished Too Much Happiness with a feeling that there is an untold side to every one of these stories. The feeling contributes to the stories being haunting, deep, and precise and to their declaration that they are purposefully and unapologetically her stories.