Carol Shields | Critical Review by Isobel Armstrong

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
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Critical Review by Isobel Armstrong

SOURCE: "Designs for Living," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4587, January 3, 1991, p. 21.

In the following review of the expanded edition of Happenstance, Armstrong discusses the significance of daily events in the lives of the two characters.

The two novellas between the covers of Happenstance are arranged so that which story you read first is a matter of chance. Whichever end of the book you start with will actually be a beginning. The stories are not arranged as a sequence, but read from front to back and from back to front of the book, so that their endings converge in the middle, printed upside down to one another. Likewise, the histories of Jack Bowman and his wife, Brenda, nouveau middle-class Americans from middle America, both in their forties, converge at O'Hare Airport, Chicago, after they have been away from one another for a week.

Domestic rules, like the form of the stories, have been inverted; Brenda has been at a craft conference in Philadelphia, winning recognition ("Second Coming receives Honourable Mention", a local newspaper announces of her apocalyptically named quilt) and surviving, among other experiences, a naked couple in flagrante delicto, who have usurped her hotel room. Her husband, a historian with an ebbing belief in his work, is involved in a more sombre black comedy of bewildered domesticity. He is left with two awkward adolescent children, a friend's broken marriage and a neighbour's suicide.

There is no suggestion that one novella, husband's or wife's, takes precedence over the other. Indeed, this is a way of rewriting hierarchical narrative, just as the form itself points to a renegotiation of the marriage relationship. But the novel is not a post-modern experiment in open-endedness. Rather the reverse. Like an orderly quilt pattern, the narrative time of the two stories comes together neatly, edge to edge. With brilliant formal skill, each story is made to act as figure and ground to the other. As all good patterns do, the design of the narrative produces a number of relationships simultaneously. The stories cleave together, expanding in one tale what is barely mentioned in the other—Brenda's earlier estrangement from Jack, Jack's loving exasperation with his father—turning the same event inside out and back to front.

The same control, working with energetic brio, organizes dazzling contrasts of hilariousness and subtlety, high comedy and sombre complexity. Jack endures the blow-drying of his snow-soaked boxer shorts by a lascivious secretary—who really loves him. A potentially light-hearted affair modulates into seriousness when Brenda learns that her friend's daughter, at eighteen, simply disappeared.

By the end of their stories Jack and Brenda have changed places. Jack exchanges the grand narrative of "History" and truth for smaller dreams and fictions and the unrecorded details which slip out of the reach of documentation. Brenda's world grows larger as she discovers, in parallel with her growing power as a designer, the richness and design of her own life. She begins to acknowledge "the shiver of history" as Jack begins to doubt it. Each constructs a new pattern.

But it is a pattern which is also a patchwork: part of the exuberance of the book comes from the way trivial scraps of experience are used to make and change the pattern of lives, particularly the detritus of the fast-food culture of Reaganite America—lifestyle columns, cooking articles, gossip features, women's magazines, reviews, beauty tips, fake events, reportage. The characters are comically exposed to its coercive banality. Brenda, still escaping from pink bathrooms and matching towels, reads with wonder about a strawberry rinse to nourish pubic hair, and catches herself regretting that she missed out on a televised love-in in the 1960s. Jack is haunted by a magazine article about men's inability to make close friendships and exasperated by his father's library of popular psychology—Take Charge of Your Life, Living Adventurously—which, movingly, does actually allow his father to change a little. And a mean newspaper review causes a suicide. Trivia counts.

Both husband and wife say "I love you" to someone else, meaning it, and yet both confirm the marriage. They choose, and the novel is about choice. That is why it does not point towards post-modern lack of closure despite the innovative symmetry of its form. But is does explore the complexity of choice. Jack, giving up his book on Native American society and the theories which almost historicize him out of existence, still wonders, from his post-Watergate, post-Vietnam context, how far his life was made by "those curious mid-fifties, the sunny optionless Eisenhower days". Brenda, seeing that our stories can have more than one ending, sees also that she has chosen not to do things.

The double structure of the narrative actually achieves a genuinely intra-subjective novel, where two mutually independent subjects exist, not the solipsist modern subject and its distant objects. But choice does not guarantee control: happenstance asserts itself; a lost eighteen-year-old and the presence of a neighbour's brain-damaged child make that clear.

Happenstance has been at work in the back-to-front publication of Carol Shields's work in England. Her most recent work, another innovative novel, Mary Swann (1987, reviewed in the TLS of November 16, 1990), was published here last year. The two novellas under review were first published in Canada in 1980 and 1982. Happenstance is also likely to identify her as a novelist of the school of Margaret Atwood. But, like her characters, she has constructed her work with the authentic independence of an important writer.

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This section contains 902 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Isobel Armstrong
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