Carol Shields | Critical Review by D. O. Spettigue

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 756 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by D. O. Spettigue

SOURCE: "Impressions," in Canadian Literature, No. 130, Autumn, 1991, pp. 149-50.

In the following review of The Orange Fish, Spettigue compares Shields' writing with the work of Alice Munro.

Twelve stories in the post-post fashion. They begin casually, they wander about, sometimes they have little story line, perhaps no closure. They have theme, though; they have, usually, a consistent point of view. Carol Shields is a critic, is a novelist, is an excellent writer of short stories; she knows how these things work. She must remind her readers of Alice Munro.

Not that you would confuse Shields and Munro, though the worlds they draw many of their subjects from are often the same: the professional maze, with its own rules for survival; the domestic scene, banal but viewed in an odd light; the perpetual, depressing puzzle of the generations—"Family Secrets" is a title for either author. But though they both deliver the knockout blow concealed in casualness, Shields is clearer, crisper—devastating but perhaps not quite so devastating as the more diffuse Munro.

The title story, initially one that seems an unlikely choice, insinuates its significance, but you know it's there: that momentary flash of numinousness in the dull disorder of existence. The inadequacy of the response. Bulwarking a collapsing marriage, the couple in "The Orange Fish" buy a print of a fish, which briefly gives their lives a focus and a lift. Almost immediately a fish cult develops; they attend meetings and find themselves extolling the fish. The fish appears on pins and t-shirts, it is everywhere, it begins to die.

Parodic. You think, this writer's cleverness cannot merely mimic, it must parody the forms it exploits. So in "Today Is the Day" the annual ritual of planting brings the village women briefly back to an earlier language, an earlier community where both the few words and the silence are fertile, "weaving a stratagem of potent suggestion overlain by a wily, votive grammar of sign and silence."

There is always something wistful in those luminous moments. No transcendence is claimed, but only a brief and unexpected excitement, a glimpse of possibilities, of colour. In "Collision" the East-Bloc documentary-film maker, Martä, shares for a few heightened moments the umbrella of the American Brownstone, consultant on tourist entertainments. Nothing more. The bright moment will not change their lives, nor do they even speak—they have no common language. Two ships that pass in the rushhour, to speak in metaphor as, we are told, "more and more we must do." More and more too, the narrator tells us, we acknowledge the world's activity as the accumulating of biographical minutiae. Life is not action, not conflict, but the endless recording of trivia. Is Shields saying, We write therefore we are? Perhaps not even write, but file. In the age of archives, of self-awareness, self-analysis, what else is there?

Martä's encounter with Brownstone is one of the non-events that overflow the silent record, a significance only within the life because that is all there is, brightness that does nothing, goes nowhere. The gap it fills is not so much a need as an inevitability. In the beginning was the biographer.

These are, as the narrator indicates, stories of metaphor; they are impressionistic, catching spots of time as the painter might catch spots of light. In "Fuel for the Fire" the widowed father brings loads of scrap lumber, anything that will burn, including, finally, bowling pins; and the daughter-narrator draws her metaphorical conclusions:

the sight of burning fires, like right now, this minute, how economical it is, how it eats up everything we give it, everything we have to offer.

As the father's other interest is food, both metaphors inform the conclusion.

There are conclusions, tentative ones of course. Again as in Munro, there is much comment, and more than in Munro much impressionistic speculation on the wry vagaries of life. Increasingly in these post-moderns the impossibility of communication, the betrayals of personal relations, the unforgivingness of time, add up to the futility of life, the uncertainty of everything but death. These "real" worlds conceal the others where the bright moments flash and fade. Where communication fails in silence, so silence can be momentary communication, as the narrator finds after she and her husband have been unscrambling road signs, "the real death of words."

As in Munro's "underground caves paved with kitchen linoleum," these are the "true" world—the world of feeling and fiction—underlying all the realities, and the pretences that have to pass for realities just to keep us going. Like Munro, Shields gets it brightly, deceptively, disturbingly right.

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This section contains 756 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by D. O. Spettigue
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Critical Review by D. O. Spettigue from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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