Monday, July 31, 2006

Collected Stories by Carol Shields

I am not, for the most part, a reader of short stories, not because I think they are trifling or unimportant, but simply because they usually tempt me, tease me, but fail to satisfy. I take this to be an idiosyncrasy of mine rather than a defect in the form. However, when I stumbled across the collected stories of Carol Shields, I had to have them. I think Shields is one of the best and most important writers of the last fifty years, and this collection, which spans her entire life as a writer, is a fitting farewell. Shields died in 2003 at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, not long after the publication of her fine novel, Unless. Although born in the U.S., Shields lived most of her life in Canada, and in my view, had a refreshingly foreign and objective view of American politics.

I am not going to say a lot about Shields and her many works, instead, I am simply going to let her own words and the words of some other Canadian writers speak for her. Shields does not write about the rich and famous; her novels and stories are about quite ordinary people, and it seems to have taken most critics many years to understand her significance. Shields understood pain and suffering, but she also understood the little joys of life and of relationships. Quoting the wonderful Margaret Atwood:

She knew about the darkness, but, both as an author and a person, she held onto the light … Earlier in her writing career, some critics mistook this quality of light in her for lightness, light-mindedness, on the general principle that comedy—a form that turns on misunderstanding and confusion, but ends in reconciliation, of however tenuous a kind—is less serious than tragedy, and that the personal life is of lesser importance than the public one. Carol Shields knew better. Human life is a mass of statistics only for statisticians: the rest of us live in a world of individuals, and most of them are not prominent. Their joys however are fully joyful, and their griefs are real. It was the extraordinariness of ordinary people that was Shield’s forte. She gave her material the full benefit of her large intelligence, her powers of observation, her humane wit, and her wide reading. Her books are delightful, in the original sense of the word: they are full of delights.
Certainly, Atwood describes exactly this collection of stories. Sometimes in just a page or two, almost always in less than twenty, Atwood introduces us to a quite ordinary person living through some experience we can all recognize, and usually with a gentle nudge of humor, enables the reader to understand something deeply significant about the particular lived life. The very first story, “Seque,” was written the year she died, and like so many of the stories in the collection, appears to be some final attempt by Shields to speak to us from beyond the grave, urging us not to despair in the face of staggering world events, to look and listen and carry on.

Something is always saying to me: Be plain. Be clear. But then something else interferes and unjoints my good intentions.” And so begins the story of an older woman, a writer of sonnets, living in a rather humdrum relationship with a man who is also a writer, but who “doesn’t believe, I suspect, that the mystery of being is as deeply manifest in women as in men.

Her poor husband, Max, has had the misfortune of having his latest novel published on September 10, 2001.
“Of course, no one had time to read the ensuing reviews of Flat Planet, no one cared about social novels and novelistic dioramas during that pinched, poisoned, vulnerable and shocking time….”
But, of course, we must talk after 9/11; we must talk, and think, and read, and act. We cannot afford to sink into the dismal but handy notion of apocalypse, must not give into cynicism and despair.

This first story is unlike most of Shields’ stories in that it is written in the first person; usually, writing in the third person, the reader is given an outsider’s view of a character, a life. “Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June!” And from this simple introduction of an old woman cutting grass in shockingly short shorts, disgustingly short in the eyes of the high school girls passing by, we are allowed to telescope out and backwards to the sketch of a life—ordinary, but passionate and complex, and looked at closely enough, quite extraordinary. And so Shields invites the reader to imagine, to realize, that there is just such a full and complex life enveloping all of the quite ordinary people we meet.

Shields loves to write about small towns in Canada, places where “the trickle-down despair of the century” has not yet reached. But she is equally at home with big city life of Toronto and Montreal. In one such story, “Chemistry,” Shields describes for us a group of mismatched folks who meet weekly in an advanced class for players of the recorder. Beginning as total strangers to one another, this group forges a rather strange and wonderful bond, meeting after class in a nearby bar, and over the period of a few months, becoming more and more dependent on this weekly fix of comradeship. “We see ourselves as accidental survivors crowed to the shores of a cynical economy.” As they stand on the street outside the bar after one of the first of such meetings, one member of the group, a usually shy and timorous woman, impulsively opens her arms to the group for a hug, and surprising even themselves, they hug and not-quite kiss. “Already, after three weeks, it’s a rite, our end-of-evening embrace, rather solemn but with a suggestion of benediction, each of us taken in turn by the others and held for an instant, a moonlit choreographed spectacle.” The class ends, the group disperses as quickly as they had formed, and yet each is left with something precious, something indelible, something that gives them hope and strength.

I am tempted to describe and quote from a number of the other simple stories in this volume, hoping to entice you into picking up the book and diving in, but instead, let me close with comments by Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, two other Canadian authors who loved and were loved by Carol Shields. Munro says of her: “She was a luminous person, and that would be important and persist even if she hadn’t written anything.” And Atwood tells us of the soul that continues on in Shield’s writing.

“It’s this voice—astute, compassionate, observant, and deeply human—that will continue to speak to her readers everywhere. For who is better at delineating happiness, especially the sudden, unlooked-for, unearned kind of happiness, than Carol Shields? It is easier to kill than to give birth, easier to destroy than to create, and easier for a writer to describe gloom than to evoke joy. Carol Shields can do both supremely well, but it’s her descriptions of joy that leave you open-mouthed. The world may be a soap bubble hovering over a void, but look, what astonishing colours it has, and isn’t it amazing that such a thing exists at all?

Such a world—various, ordinary, shimmering, evanescent but miraculous—is a gift; and it’s the vision of this gift that Carol Shields has presented us with in her extraordinary books. We give thanks for it—and for her.”
Indeed, we do.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Anyone who has thought of writing memoir has to ask themselves what they will include and what they will not, where they will start, and what will be the pivot or organizing principle of their story. The very title of Jeannette Walls memoir, The Glass Castle, serves as just such a pivot. One of four children, three girls and a boy, Jeannette grows up in a series of hard scrabble towns and an assortment of barely habitable houses, but always with the promise that very soon she will be living in the glass castle that her father has designed and will build as soon as he has solved a set of tricky engineering and energy problems. Almost always hungry and dressed in thrift-store clothes, she and her siblings defend each other fiercely—the more rejection they feel from the Others, the more tightly they bind themselves to one another and to the increasingly improbable dreams of their clever but shiftless father. Suspicious of all outsiders, but especially of anyone who has the stamp of government on them, they often skedaddle in the middle of the night, allowed to take only one favorite possession with them. From Nevada to California and back again to Nevada, always ready to move on at the drop of a hat or the appearance of a child welfare worker, still the children continue to believe in their father who can fix anything and their artist mother who, it seems, would rather paint than eat.

On the book cover the author and critic, Francine Prose, says that memoirs are modern fairy tales, and judging from the huge sales of this book, this is a fairy tale that has captured the imagination of lots of folks. There is no doubt that Walls is a very good writer, and she describes the incredibly hard life she and her siblings lived with a kind of detachment and lack of pathos that reminds me of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, but unlike Wright’s autobiography, this book lacks any profound social commentary. Even when the Walls wind up in an almost unbelievably impoverished West Virginia mining town, Walls fails to reflect on the underlying causes of poverty surrounding her, or of the scandalous failure to provide health care, food and clothing to the victims of this economic system. It is almost as if she believes that poverty is a personal sin, and to the very end of her account, it seems that she is more ashamed of her origins than outraged by the conditions of her own family and of countless other families she encounters in her childhood. Indeed, from the very outset of this memoir, the reader discovers an author still on the run.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up.
It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.
I grant, of course, that anyone who has lived as Jeannette lived in her childhood would be eager to escape that condition, even to try to forget it, bury it. But Walls seems to be still in the grips of a kind of class shame, and I found myself in the final pages of the memoir more on the side of her reckless but rebellious parents than on hers. As it turns out, both of her parents were very bright but self-absorbed; they probably could have done much better as providers than they did (unlike some of the other families they encounter on their cross-country travels). Walls probably has the right to be angry with them; neither should have been a parent. Her father, besides being an alcoholic who seems more unwilling than unable to hold down a job, is more dedicated to his schemes and his own inflated view of himself than he is to his wife or family. And her mother is so addicted to pursuing her art that her children are bound to finish a distant second to her artistic endeavors. Thus, while poverty and hardship are prominent in this memoir, in the end it is more about four children escaping their parents than of their remarkable escape from poverty. Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote an excellent autobiographical novel about her escape from a traditionally Jewish family entitled Leaving Brooklyn. She describes how, in order to become the person she wants and needs to be, she must leave home and family and begin anew, and this is much more a reflection of her own needs than a condemnation of her family or past. I have worked on and off for years on an account of my Mormon childhood in Salt Lake City that I call Escape From Zion, realizing that I had to run away in order not to spend the rest of my life fighting Mormonism. I suppose in the end I simply find it hard to pinpoint what Walls is running from or even where she is running to. I very much admire the way she and her older sister escaped West Virginia, and then rather than simply turning their backs on their younger siblings bring of their miraculous escape as well, even rescuing the youngest girl when she is still in her early teens. The bond between the children is admirable, as are their sacrifices for one another.

I found myself more and more caught up in the story as the children, one by one, manage their move to New York, and horrified when even after their escape, both parents show up in New York City to “re-unite” the family. But as captivating as the story is, it leaves me wanting more—more reflection, more understanding, more analysis. If this is a modern day fairy tale, what is its point, its moral? Towards the very end, after the death of her father and the continued homelessness of her mother, Walls says, “It took me a while to realize that just being on the move wasn’t enough; that I needed to reconsider everything.” Yes, and perhaps writing this memoir is the beginning of that reconsideration, and the epiphany of understanding will follow in some future work.