Wednesday, December 14, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 12th Review - Dressing Up for the Carnival

As I mentioned in my review of Unless, Carol Shields started working on another novel, but in the end only the story "Segue" was extracted from her working notes.  This was included in her Collected Stories.  Several years back I read and reviewed her first two short story collections (Various Miracles and The Orange Fish).  While I knew that her short stories don't usually succeed that well for me, I decided I ought to read through all the stories in Collected Stories, which is how I came to read Dressing Up for the Carnival.

Taken as a whole, it is fairly similar to the first two collections, and it doesn't really do a lot for me, with a few exceptions.  There are a few stories that draw on fantastical elements ("Weather," "Stop!," "Reportage").  At first it seems that "The Harp" is more of a dream, but then Shields shows how it could be grounded, though it isn't one of the more interesting stories.

One thing that does appear to be a bit new for her is how some of these stories are fragmented, built up around 2 or 3 characters or even incidents that are supposed to be more illuminating than just focusing on one at more depth.  This included "Dressing Up for the Carnival," "Dying for Love," "Keys," and "Invention."  "Keys" seemed like it was inspired by one of those stories in the round (like Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon) and yet Shields doesn't write about a single key passed from hand to hand, which would likely have been a more interesting approach, since it forces the author to be more creative.

Curiously, one of the more interesting and successful experiments is "Absence," which is an oulipian text (that is one that follows strict rules in its construction*).  In this case, none of the words in the story use "I" (ostensibly because the author's computer keyboard is missing a key), and the reader follows the struggle of the writer and the gymnastics involved in not using "I."  Perhaps Shields was reflecting back on this experiment when she started writing "Segue," since the narrator's sonnet society suddenly has to start sharing its space with an oulipian group.  It's certainly possible that Shields would have integrated a few oulipian pieces into the novel had she finished it.

There were a couple of stories that didn't work for me as a whole, but did have amusing moments.  I particularly liked this bizarre claim from the story "Invention": "It might be thought that such a man {a successful cooper} would direct his inventive energy toward improving the traditional barrel or cask, but instead my ancestor invented the hyphen."

I also liked the ending of "Soup du Jour," which focuses on a young boy (10 years old) given the important task of picking up something at the store.  It's a near tragedy when he approaches the store and can't remember what his mother asked for:

He takes a breath, pokes a stick between the squares of concrete, and begins the process of elimination. Not carrots, not onions, not potatoes. As he strikes these items from the familiar list, he experiences the same ponderable satisfaction he finds in naming such other absences as father or brother or uncle, always imagining these gaps to be filled with a leather-fresh air of possibility, just around the corner, just five minutes out of reach.

At that moment the word celery arrives, fully shaped, extracted cleanly from the black crack in the pavement, the final crack (as luck would have it) before the three smooth cement steps that lead up to the sill of the corner store. The boy’s gratitude is thunderous. He almost stumbles under the punishment of it, thinking how he will remember it all his life, even when he is old and forgetful and has given up his obsession with counting. 

In terms of the stories that did work for me as a whole, I enjoyed "Reportage," which discusses the impact on a small town in Manitoba when a Roman ruin is discovered in a farmer's field.  This sparks a major tourism boom.  While the idea is clearly impossible, it was still interesting watching it unfold.  Most townsfolk welcomed the visitors, but one or two wished that the town returned to its sleepy former self.

While I found "New Music" just a bit melancholy, it was a bit of a departure for Shields to be writing about a marriage where the wife does get to pursue her creative ambitions (she writes a well-received biography of the English composer Thomas Tallis and is contemplating a second one on William Byrd).  I probably liked it just because it is fairly unusual in her oeuvre.

Similarly, "Mirrors" is about an older couple who have come through the other side of relatively minor marital problems and are still happily married.  They stay at a cottage every summer where they have no mirrors at all (even the wife's compact has its mirror removed).  While this isn't "the secret" to their happiness, it seems to help.  I don't know if this relatively satisfied couple could sustain interest at novel length, though perhaps they were the seed for the couple in the unfinished novel (though in that case, the wife suffers from significant health challenges which presumably would have given more urgency to the events of the novel).  Anyway, "Mirrors" was probably my single favorite story from the collection.

Shields ends the collection with "Dressing Down," a story of a marriage that had sort of gone off the rails, largely because the husband insisted on starting up a nudist colony where he spent every July.  The wife grimly agreed to go until the year that the narrator (her grandson) was going to join the colony, while his parents were away in Europe!  She stopped going to the colony, and this started an irreparable breach between the two.  I think it is more typical of Shields that she sort of privileges bad or unsatisfactory marriages, but it is my prerogative as a reader to focus on "Mirrors" as my main take-away from the collection.

* George Perec was probably the most famous member of the Oulipo Group, or at least his oulipian texts are the most widely known (Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino were also members of the group, but I am not sure that Zazie in the Metro or Invisible Cities are classified as oulipian).  In any case, I've been meaning to read Perec's A Void (a novel written -- and translated! -- without the letter e) for some time, and then perhaps I'll finally be able to tackle Life, A User's Manual, which I've owned for decades.


  1. Shields' stories really appeal to me; I enjoy the variety and the tone, and the sometimes-strange layering and reflecting that occur at times. As for books about marriages which endure rather than fragment, I recall Bonnie Burnard saying that was one of the motivators for her novel A Good House (though I'm not sure that would be to your taste stylistically).

    1. I do think it is legitimately difficult to write about a happy marriage and sustain the typical reader's interest. If I have a chance, I'll look for A Good House. Sometimes, I sort of surprise myself by liking a novel that wouldn't normally appeal to me. The most surprising I can think of in recent years was Marilynn Robinson's Gilead, which is more meditative and a gentler novel than I normally read. Incidentally, it is partially about a solid marriage that emerged from a May-December romance.