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.

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