Magic tricks

Alice Munro has them, Philip Roth doesn’t
By ED SIEGEL  |  November 11, 2009

IN PLAIN SIGHT: If Munro is pulling strings, it’s all but impossible to see them.

The Humbling | By Philip Roth | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 160 pages | $22

Too Much Happiness | By Alice Munro | Knopf | 320 pages | $25.95

You have to give a seventysomething writer credit for daring to begin a book with “He’d lost his magic.”

To judge by The Humbling, you could draw that conclusion about Philip Roth, who begins his slim new novel with those words, and whose magic is in short supply during this third and, one hopes, last in a series of “Growing old sucks and then you die” meditations. We know better than to question Roth’s magic, though, because the series — which began with Everyman (2006, the one good entry) and Exit Ghost (2007) — was preceded by one gem, The Plot Against America (2004), and interrupted by another, Indignation (2008).

As luck or the literary gods would have it, Roth is joined in the new-release sweepstakes this month by a writer often mentioned in the same breath, Alice Munro. Her Too Much Happiness proves she hasn’t lost any magic. She’s even learned a few tricks.

This is welcome news to Munro’s fans, since she’d implied that the previous collection of stories, The View from Castle Rock (2006), would be her last. The Canadian writer is a couple of years Roth’s senior, so contemplating mortality and wondering what she has left to say have been on her mind as well. Anyone familiar with her stories knows that the title of this collection has to be highly qualified.

Which is not to say it’s downright ironic. Munro’s characters could fill a room of Adulterers Anonymous, her children are forever turning on their parents, and debilitating illness is never more than a defective gene away — yet her ability to strip away illusion and replace it with clarity and insight does afford her characters a certain satisfaction. It also justifies the frequent comparison of her short stories with Chekhov’s.

Here she adopts something of a Gothic strain — the stories are Rendellian as well as Chekhovian. “Child’s Play” appeared in last year’s Best American Mystery Stories as well as in Best American Short Stories; “Free Radicals” is in the 2009 Mystery volume. In Happiness, more than one murderer rears his or her head, an elderly man persuades a female college student to read Housman in the nude, and there’s the usual cancer, leukemia, and other fun stuff.

But it isn’t the surprising choices the characters make in dealing with disaster that render these stories more than merely bracing slices of life. It’s the sense Munro conveys that those choices, despite the often unhappy consequences, were the ones the characters had to make. The young woman realizes she could easily have refused to disrobe. Why didn’t she? And why does she feel the need to exact revenge? Munro makes you feel she couldn’t have acted otherwise. If this magician is pulling strings, it’s all but impossible to see them.

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Related: 2009: The year in books, Tall tales, Lions and lambs, More more >
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