In many ways, Shields plays with her readers in this book. The heroine is a novelist who is, surprise surprise, writing a novel as she speaks to us. And she is not only a novelist, she is also a translator, from French to English, of one of the leading feminists of the day in Canada. Thus, she is able to talk about the novel as a political form compared to the much clearer and more direct essay. Shields lets her readers worry along with her about just how difficult it is to write a novel, to create believable characters whom the reader cares about, and to do something more than simply divert readers from the ugliness and complexity of the real world. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, our writer heroine is also struggling to recover a lost daughter and to come to understand just why she is lost. Indeed, if the novel has any weakness, it is that the story-line takes second place to the ‘message’.
So, we have a novel about writing novels that contains as well an aesthetic theory, and to add one more ‘little’ enterprise, a treatise about goodness, what it would mean to be good in this nasty, big world we live in. Our novelist heroine’s name is Reta, her lost daughter’s Norah, and the famous old feminist whom she translates, Danielle Westerman. Via the character of Danielle, Shields is able to ponder what it must feel like to have dedicated a life to political causes, especially feminist issues, and to have seen so little real change as the world spirals to ecological and economic chaos. Through Norah, the lost daughter who sits on a street corner with a one word sign around her neck, “Goodness”, she is able speculate about why a young woman who really cares about good might decide finally that the only course open to her is spiritual and literal resignation.
But if Norah chooses resignation and asceticism, Shields certainly does not. If the ship is sinking, Shields will be one of the last and loudest and most articulate voices to sound alarms and point to causes, and at the very least, to stew and stew and stew about solutions. I find myself simply amazed at how much Shields knows about people and relationships, how artfully and doggedly she struggles against the awful temptation to give up given the apparent impotence of good people to change the course of greed and economic imperialism. In a series of humorous black comedy letters to famous people of the day (and in response to essays she reads in current periodicals), Reta asks these famous and influential men how it can be that no women ever appear on their lists of the noteworthy or in their essays—essays about authors, painters, political writers, simply people of worth. As funny and clever as some of these written but rarely sent letters are, they are also deadly serious and heartbroken, spiritbroken. Lucky for us that Shields is stronger and more resilient than her heroine.
But instead of continuing in this attempt to capture the cleverness and insights of this novel, let me have Shield’s, via Reta, speak for herself.
And these are only a few of the unlesses; Sheilds goes on to articulate the many ways that unless you happen to live in the wake of an affluent country (affluent at the expense of the majority, the poor and miserable of the world), you are already in the darkness, already in the despair. Unless you are white, unless you are male, unless you have a job, a house, a doctor ... then you are in the condition of the many and not the few.
In her last years Danielle [the feminist essayist] has become cranky, even with me, her translator. She suspects I’ve abandoned the ‘discourse,’ as she always calls it, for the unworthiness of novel writing. She has a way of lowering her jaw when she skirts this topic, and her eyes seem freshened with disappointment. She is such a persuasive force that I often find myself agreeing with her; what really is the point of novel writing when the unjust world howls and writhes?
Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior ‘discourse,’ but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they’re just so much narrative crumble. Unless, unless.
Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence ....
Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. Unless provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough. Unless keeps you from drowning in the presiding arrangements.
Perhaps Kate Chopin’s lead character responds to her impotent despair by walking into the ocean, and perhaps Reta’s daughter Norah will choose, in her search for goodness, infinite resignation, but not Carol Shields. Though she may question the effectiveness of writing novels as the unjust world burns around her, her voice is strident and clear. At the very least, she must sound out a warning. Not a warning, but a siren-song of warnings. “We only appear to be rooted in time. Everywhere, if you listen closely, the spitting fuse of the future is crackling.” Shields listens carefully, and she writes with clarity and thunder.
It may be tempting to withdraw into the self, to search for the causes of world-weariness from within. But the answers are out there, in the arena, in the unjust world. And goodness, if it is to found at all, is only to be found and practiced there. Along with Murdoch who takes Socrates to task for his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, Shields urges her readers to get off their collective asses and enter the struggle. “The examined life has had altogether to much good publicity. Introversion is piercingly dull in its circularity and lack of air.” For the novelist as well as the person in the street, the challenge is to change the nasty world we find ourselves in.