I was anticipating pleasant encounters with the cozy world of Alice Munro's rural Canada, often in those neat small towns near Lake Huron in Ontario, but after reading her new short-story collection, I was left with an uncomfortable feeling.
Aside from the lovely title story, set not in Ontario, but 19th-century Europe, many of the tales are disturbing, almost bordering on the Stephen King-like. It's as though Munro, at 78, is unburdening herself of those unpleasant thoughts she's been bottling up.
My observation should not detract from Munro's long story about the life and unfortunate death of Sophia Kovalesky, a brilliant Russian mathematician in a time when women were second-class citizens regardless of their accomplishments.
In her understated empathetic manner, Munro recounts the emotional and professional struggles of the young widow who has won a prestigious prize:
"Then they had given her the Bordin Prize, they had kissed her hand. ... But they had closed their doors when it came to giving her a job. They would no more think of that than of employing a learned chimpanzee."
"Too Much Happiness"
By Alice Munro Knopf ($25.95)
Sophia is hired, though, the first woman professor at a Swedish university, yet the ebb and flow of her life interferes with her love of mathematics.
"Too Much Happiness" shows Munro's skills at their best, an example of pure melancholy and hopelessness amid the promise of love.
Back in Canada, though, Munro's polish and sophisticated understanding of the heart fades among the backdrop of stories about troubled people who have little self-regard or insight. They stumble into odd situations carelessly where they act cruelly or with little sympathy.
The story "Wenlock Edge" refers to an A.E. Housman poem that the narrator, a college woman in London, Ontario, reads to Mr. Purvis, a complete stranger, in the nude.
"And may I ask you please -- may I ask you please -- not to cross your legs?" is one of his requests.
What is going on here?
This buxom naive woman from the sticks has agreed to satisfy Purvis' voyeurism in the place of his regular subject, the promiscuous Nina, her temporary roommate. Nina's had three children before she was 21 and is now auditing college courses, everything paid for by Purvis.
In sending the narrator for her dinner in the buff, Nina hopes to escape from his clutches with Ernie, the narrator's second cousin.
Bizarre circumstances can happen anywhere, Munro tells us in this story, even to ordinary folk like the narrator who wanders around in a haze of indecision with no free will of her own. Her outrageous willingness to disrobe is Munro's poorly reasoned way of opening her character's eyes to the manipulative people around her, including Ernie, the pathetic momma's boy.
Nobody comes off as a decent person in "Wenlock Edge" and most of the other Canadian stories. For instance, in the opening tale, "Dimensions," another naive woman marries friendly Lloyd after she's orphaned as a teen. Lloyd is crazy, of course, and murders their three children when Doree is away, yet she faithfully visits him in prison.
"Free Radicals" finds the widow Nita reminiscing about how Rich left his first wife for her, sabotaging his college career with the scandal.
Herself ill with cancer, Nita allows a killer on the run to steal her car, but not before confessing that she poisoned another of Rich's girlfriends to death with rhubarb veins in a tart.
Really, or is Nita just telling the tale to get rid of the guy? We are also left with the thought that maybe she put something in the man's wine because he ends up dead.
Then, there's the story of childhood friends Marlene and Charlene and a mentally handicapped girl who tries to be their friend. Instead, they drown her.
Other tales involve self-mutilation ("Face"), a man who rejects his mother and lives down and out in Toronto ("Deep-Holes") and Joyce, a jilted wife who believes a short-story writer is the daughter of the woman who attracted her ex-husband, but even though a story seems familiar, Joyce is too timid to find out ("Fiction.")
Betrayal, murder, perversity, cruelty and selfishness fill these new Alice Munro stories, not the redemption and hope that have marked her other work. It's a puzzle.