Incomplete Happiness

In Alice Munro’s latest collection, Dear Life, many of her characters are happy or find happiness but that happiness is never complete, never without complications or compromise. It’s interesting to consider Dear Life as the critically acclaimed television show 30 Rock, comes to an end.

In many of the stories in Dear Life, there are people who live in isolation and then that isolation and the loneliness of such isolation is somehow appeased. Over the years, 30 Rock, has been many things but it has also been a show about loneliness and the way we are all rather awkward and impossible to live with or without. How should people be? Perhaps that is the question 30 Rock has always tried to answer, albeit with humor and quirkiness and, oftentimes, intelligence. The show has never been perfect. There’s some awkwardness with race that discomfits me and at times it is hard to go along with the bald-faced lie that Tina Fey as Liz Lemon is supposed to be unattractive or undesirable. Whatever the flaws, though, the show is good. 

One of the plot threads at the end of 30 Rock, is Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon trying to figure out how to “have it all.” This seems to be the dominant narrative about women and work and life as of late. It’s a bit of an absurd narrative, particularly as it applies to women because it implies that having it all is some kind of universal goal for women and that “having it all” is generally composed of successful career, successful relationship, and children. I don’t know what having it all is but I don’t really need to know, either. 

Anyway, the season finale of 30 Rock was good. There is no easy way to bring a television show to an end but Fey and her staff managed to give each of the characters something that resembles happiness, perhaps incomplete but happiness nonetheless. The ending made me wonder if Fey has read Alice Munro. 

In Dear Life, there is a story called Corrie about a woman with a lame leg, polio, who takes up with a married man, Howard, quite happily. She doesn’t have all of him but she has some of him and it is enough. They find each other when they can and manage to live out a long life. At one point, the young woman who used to work for Corrie and her father, Lillian, blackmails the couple. Twice a year, she insists on being paid, via a post office box, and she will stay silent about their affair. Corrie has money so she says she’ll pay because she knows Howard cannot afford it. They agree he’ll take the money twice a year to pay Lillian. He says, “I could not stand for there to be an end of you and me,” and Corrie says, “I’m glad to hear that.” 

This exchange, like so many exchanges in Dear Life, allow us to believe that these people can be truly happy. But then, there is the ending, there is life, there is the inevitable. I suppose what follows is what you call spoilers. In the end, Lillian dies, at 46, and Corrie learns that Lillian was a good woman, gave to her church, was beloved. She doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would blackmail an adulterous couple. Corrie, an intelligent sort, figures out that it was Howard who came up with the ruse. It is such an elegant and bitter betrayal. In the end, she lets him know LIllian is dead and he writes back that all is now well, he will see her soon. There is this ugly truth between them but the ending implies their relationship will continue. Corrie is left with an incomplete, tempered happiness and that seems almost worse than no happiness at all.