When reviewing a new book of stories by Alice Munro, it's tempting to simply say: Readers, here it is.
Those who appreciate good writing are usually well aware of her work and have followed it in magazines, anthologies and one award-winning volume after another. Most recently, Munro won the Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a living author for a "body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage." Although she has published a novel, Munro is best known for her short stories, which have prompted Cynthia Ozick to call her the Canadian Chekhov.
There you have it, and here it is: another fine collection of short stories by Munro. They are concerned with the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing, as William Faulkner famously pronounced in his Nobel Prize speech.
Whether you'd want to get too close to some of these hearts in their conflicts is another question, although the struggle is consistently fascinating. One narrator, for instance, observing that "children of course are monstrously conventional, repelled at once by whatever is off-center, out of whack, unmanageable," follows this logic to its monstrous conclusion.
Another narrator, spellbound by a college roommate who challenges her conventionality, enacts a strange drama with that roommate's perverse older lover and exacts her revenge for the humiliating "privilege."
Then there are the deep looks into lives and motives that are mysteries to most of us: the beleaguered young wife still somehow in the thrall of the man who has murdered their children; the man whose disfigurement has both won and lost him his only real chance at love; the girl whose first job gives her a curious perspective on the peculiar romantic competition of three women over one dying man.
Somewhat unusual is the title story, about Sophia Kovalesky, a gifted and celebrated 19th-century mathematician who also wrote novels. Telling of the days before Sophia's death, Munro manages to make a whole life story of the novella. The wonderful ending nearly redeems this story, but finally the weaknesses of "Too Much Happiness," with its historical basis, offer insight into the strengths of the other stories.
More than virtually anyone else's, Munro's stories unfold in surprising ways that nonetheless seem perfectly right. They are marvels of unhurried compression in which precision looks casual, in which everything is clearly in its place, though no one else might think to put it exactly thus.
In one story, "Fiction," a woman, Joyce, encounters a young writer who has made a story of an early chapter in Joyce's life. When Joyce discovers that the young writer's book is a collection of short stories, not a novel, she sees it as a "disappointment. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging onto the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside."
And if this is what hanging on the gates is like, I'd say: Who in her right mind would want to be safely settled?
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.