Carol Shields | Critical Essay by Eleanor Wachtel

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 4,713 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Eleanor Wachtel

Critical Essay by Eleanor Wachtel

SOURCE: "Telling It Slant," in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 4, May, 1988, pp. 9-14.

In the following essay, Wachtel provides an overview of Shields's life and career.

Four years ago, when Carol Shields turned 50, her writing turned a corner. The titles tell all. Before: Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance, and A Fairly Conventional Woman. After: Various Miracles, Swann: A Mystery, and now, The Orange Fish. "You get older and braver," she says, "braver about what you can say and what can be understood."

Her first four novels presented reliable pictures of middle-class, domestic life. Shields is expert at evoking the feelings and concerns of ordinary people—their ambivalence about their families, their jobs, and their mates. Her characters think. They try to be nice. And they often get stuck in boring situations—with spouses, parents, or colleagues. It's not the mad trapped housewife that Shields finds in suburbia, but relatively happy families coping with change, recognizing some uneasiness around the edges, but committed to the safety of the familiar. It's that world of dirty dishes, tired casseroles, and the acute desperation of school projects. The virtues, joys, and griefs of everyday life are cherished. Shields doesn't satirize; she reassures, but not in a smug or cloying way. Her style is often ironic, affectionately mocking—especially of academic life—lightly humorous, with a delicacy and subtlety of language that elicit (not entirely appropriate) comparisons with Jane Austen. These early books not only deal with prosaic subjects—which are, of course, the stuff of life—but they are "fairly conventionally" written. There's more attention to language and craft than is commonly recognized, but they're essentially naturalistic.

In Various Miracles, Shields's 1985 collection of short fiction, the lid came off. Shields began to experiment with different ways (and voices) to tell stories. She flouted conventions against literary coincidence, building the title story ["Various Miracles"] on a series of "miraculous" circumstances, creating an imaginative interweaving of events that lead to a playful "trick" ending. A character in the story is also a character in a manuscript in the story—a Russian doll-like construction. Shields takes a leaf from the postmodernist's book and writes, "Sometimes it's better to let things be strange and to represent nothing but themselves." The stories lift off the ground, take some sharp corners and find their own way, often at curious angles.

The book's epigraph is Emily Dickinson's "Tell the truth but tell it slant." Shields bends its meaning a little. In Dickinson's poem, the truth is so brilliant that if we look at it directly, we'll be blinded. Shields interprets this obliqueness as an invitation to experiment with a range of narrative approaches—omniscient, direct, fractured. "Telling the story from the slant," she says, "can sometimes lead you into the presence of an unreliable narrator, the narrator who understands everything, except what is central." This is what Shields developed in her next novel, Swann: A Mystery—a wonderful book, more adventurous than anything she'd ever done. Told from the point of view of four solitaries, each in search of a kind of family or connection, the book is a double mystery, about the missing manuscripts of a dead poet, and the profound mystery of human personality.

Carol Shields is sitting at a restaurant, looking like a character from one of her early novels. What used to be called sensibly dressed: a soft cream-coloured sweater fastened at the neck with a gold bow pin. Matching skirt, pumps. Simple stud earrings; pearl ring and gold bracelet on one hand; gold wedding band and diamond engagement ring on the other. Shields is thin, with short blond hair and clear blue eyes behind thick-lensed glasses, which she removes and folds on the table. She has a small, soft, sometimes hesitant voice. She admits to a certain passivity, a reticence. And then disarms by saying, "Okay, ask me something personal." But when you do, she becomes abstract or ducks behind a book she's read. "Print is her way of entering and escaping the world." (Various Miracles)

"It concerns me," she confesses, "that the books I've read have been a big part of the way I experience the world—maybe more than for other people. And I do wonder if there is maybe something substandard about that." Surprising from a woman who's raised five children, published ten books, and who's lived in the U.S., England, France, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. But learning to read at four, she claims, "realizing that those symbols meant something that I could be part of," was the central mystical experience of her life. She speculates that her early fascination with language may have been related to her short-sightedness, that instead of engaging with visual images, she got hooked on language and the magic it contained.

Carol Shields grew up in Dick-and-Jane-land. Oak Park is an older, stable suburb of Chicago, famous for its early 20th-century Frank Lloyd Wright houses. It was homogeneously white and middle class. Shields and her slightly older twin siblings lived with their parents in a large white stucco house. Her father managed a candy factory. Her mother, of Swedish stock and also a twin, taught fourth grade until she had children of her own, and then resumed after the war when there was a teacher shortage. While still a young woman, her mother boarded with Ernest Hemingway's parents, who lived in Oak Park. Shields captured this incident in an early poem, and in greater detail in a new story called "Family Secrets" in The Orange Fish. What amazed Shields was how her mother was never curious to read Hemingway despite living under his roof. In the story, the daughter speculates on her mother's life and its hidden corners, and ultimately treasures her own bundle of secrets.

The only books around Carol's house were her parents' childhood reading—Horatio Alger and Anne of Green Gables and Louisa May Alcott. Her mother read to her a lot—even pedestrian series like The Bobbsey Twins—and until eighth grade, Carol attended the local library's story hour. "That combination of drama and narrative was something I loved," she says. Central to her recollection of this time is her fondness for Dick and Jane—those school readers. "I understood Jane," she says almost ingenuously. "I suppose I imagined a life for her that wasn't really there in the reader, but she was someone I found interesting and related to. Jane was very sturdy and knew her own mind, I always thought. And I loved the way that Dick was so good to her, so protective of her, so unlike most brothers. Everyone was terribly good to everyone else; there were no bad intentions. They seemed like real people to me and their world seemed wonderfully safe and ordered. Probably even safer and more ordered than my own safe and ordered world. This sort of extraordinary goodness is very appealing to children."

She pauses. "What a place to grow up! Like growing up in a plastic bag is how I think of it—a very safe place to grow up." But surely a plastic bag is more suffocating than safe? "It's funny," she says. "I always knew that something was wrong with it, but I never knew what it was until I went away. What was wrong was that there wasn't enough: it was all very good, it just wasn't enough. Everyone went to church. I can't believe this, everyone went to church."

Shields recently went home for her high school's 35th reunion. She stood on a familiar corner and experienced "the opposite of nostalgia"—relief that she'd escaped. Her parents were timid people, so any intellectual expectations she sensed came from an affluent, kindly school system. "All my teachers at that time were unmarried, middle-aged and bosomy," she says, aware of the fulfilled stereotype. "They were wonderful women and very caring." But it was limited—or insulated. "Imagine growing up a few blocks from where James T. Farrell lived and not knowing it." Farrell, an early communist, is famous for the Studs Lonigan trilogy, a powerful indictment of the American dream.

But Shields was locked into her own dreamy childhood. She was the class poet, turning out sonnets that she knew even then were infused with false rhetoric. She was encouraged by her parents and teachers, published in the school paper, and liked to write. Shields didn't actually think she could be a writer until much later—in her late 20s. The high school yearbook said she was the one who'd write the novel. "But I never believed that for a minute. I'd never met a writer. It was like wanting to be a movie star." Her parents wanted her to have a career "to fall back on." This was the '50s and "we all knew we would get married and have children."

Shields went to Hanover College, a small conservative school in Indiana. "I did what most people did: I just sent off for all kinds of university catalogues and chose one that looked like a 'Father Knows Best' college." Shields is mildly self-deprecating, not ironic. She regrets not being "braver" and going to a bigger urban school. She even found herself sucked into a sorority, unable to buck convention. "Education was wasted on me," she says. "I was much more interested in falling in love and going to dances." But she read. And one "lucky" thing was a junior year exchange program with Exeter University in England. It was a great revelation to encounter a truly academic atmosphere where people took their subjects seriously. Carol thrived. She also met Donald Shields, a Canadian engineering grad student, whom she married when she graduated. By this time, she'd forgotten about being a writer. "I was just interested in being in love and having a house—the whole Ladies' Home Journal thing." In fact, when her mother first met Don, she told him she hoped he'd encourage Carol to keep on writing, and Don looked blank. They were engaged to be married and Carol had never mentioned to him that she wrote. It wasn't until they were settled in Toronto, with the first of their five children, that Don suggested she take a University of Toronto course in magazine writing.

"I can't remember much about it except that a woman lectured to us once a week. She wore a big hat and she never took it off. There were about 40 of us and she said, 'When you send in a manuscript, you should use a paper-clip and not a staple.'" At the end of the term, students were expected to write something, so Carol wrote a short story. A few months later, the teacher called. She'd sold her story to CBC Radio—the old John Drainie program, 15 minutes narrated by Drainie. But even this success didn't galvanize Shields. She figured she'd write stories when she had the chance. And about once a year she'd "stir her stumps" and write a story and sell it to the CBC or BBC. She was busy, full of energy. She still read a lot and there was never a year when she wasn't taking "some course or other" in law or English. By the time she was 25, she had three children and was living in Manchester, where Don got his Ph.D. Yet Shields feels that she had a prolonged childhood, that she stayed in a sort of infancy, and didn't really wake up until, her late 20s. There's a line in her fourth novel, A Fairly Conventional Woman, about a housewife on the verge of artistic recognition: "What a dumb sap she was, detained too long in girl-hood, an abstainer from adult life." And although Shields clearly has done a lot in her life, it fits her self-perception as a passive observer, able to mediate with life primarily through books—her own and others'. Intrigued by history and biography, she lives these interests vicariously, through her characters: the biographer Judith Gill of her first novel, Small Ceremonies, and the historian Jack Bowman of her third, Happenstance. Of all her characters, it is with Jack the observer that Shields says she most identifies.

Suddenly, as if to underline her position as bystander, she leans across the table and says, sotto voce, "I've just been to New York and it's a great place to eavesdrop because they talk so loud and about such interesting things. Can you hear what they're saying at the next table? I think she's a writer because she was talking about writing books, but now she's talking about cooking so maybe she writes cookbooks." Shields smiles, resumes eating and demurely waits for another question.

On the boat home from England, Shields read Betty Friedan's The Feminist Mystique. She thought about going to law school. She joined a "Great Books" discussion group and she had another baby. She also started reading the English poet, Philip Larkin. Excited by the honesty of his writing, she started writing poetry again. At that time, CBC Radio had a Young Writers' Competition. The cut-off was 30; Shields was 29. She wrote seven poems. It was the first time in her life that she took her writing seriously. She won.

"That led me into a period, of about five years, writing poetry," she explains. "It was an enormously happy writing time. I was very strict with myself. I followed Larkin's set of rules: no pretty language. If anything was pretty, out it went. Unfortunately, I also borrowed some of his despair, I think, in my first few poems. I can remember my friends being a little worried about me."

She published in The Canadian Forum and a few other magazines. Then the family moved to Ottawa, where her husband was associated with the University of Ottawa. This meant free tuition for Carol. "Being very thrifty about these things, I decided I'd better take advantage of it." She enrolled in a master's program in English and discovered Susanna Moodie. "First I was going to do a thesis on P. K. Page because I liked her poetry. I even interviewed her when she was in Ottawa. I spoke to her about her work and asked what one of her poems meant. She said, 'I haven't the faintest idea.' At this time I was rather severe about these things, and I thought, 'If she doesn't know what it means, why am I going to try and figure it out?' Since then, I've met all sorts of poets who don't understand their writing and I've even written things I don't quite understand."

Shields was drawn to Moodie's trashy English novels and what they revealed about her Canadian work, Roughing It in the Bush and Life in the Clearings. She was surprised by the sibling rivalry that surfaced between Moodie and her sister, Catharine Parr Trail, who was a little older and more beautiful. She was also struck by the male-female relations in those books. Moodie paid lip service to the supremacy of men and then depicted weak men and strong women. There was a recurring tableau of the recumbent male being nursed back to health by the upright female. Shields wrote her thesis in the early '70s when feminism was in the air, but "being out of things is sort of my hobby," she jokes. Like her socialism—she describes herself as "an instinctive pink"—Shields's feminism is latent. She values the lives of women, especially the women friends she's kept all her life. But, she says, "I never went through those consciousness-raising sessions. A lot of my experience of what a woman's life could be—seeing other patterns of being—came from reading American and British fiction, not from reality." At the same time, Shields was annoyed that most women were portrayed as bitches or bubble-heads in fiction, a lot less kind and dumber than the women she knew. She started to think about writing a novel.

While still in graduate school, however, she published two small books of poetry, Others and Intersect. "Portraits" is how she thinks about those poems. They're about friends, parents, children; a married couple's bedtime rituals, a family dinner, anniversaries, a child learning to talk—the furniture of her novels.

During work on her thesis, she also got her first job—editorial assistant for a scholarly quarterly, Canadian Slavonic Papers. A "jobette" she calls it, conscious of its relative insignificance. But it was important, not only because she passed it on to Charleen, heroine of her second novel, The Box Garden, but because "all those years I was at home with children, I never thought I would have a job." Now she teaches part-time at the University of Manitoba.

Shields dropped out of university for one term to try to write a novel, a literary whodunit, perhaps foreshadowing Swann: A Mystery. It was rejected by three publishers. "But they wrote very nice letters so I thought I would try again." This time she had more confidence, having written one book and a thesis. She wrote two pages a day, every day, and at the end of nine months, she had a novel, Small Ceremonies. Although the book isn't programmatic, there were several things she wanted it to feature: a heroine with a reflective side to her life; a woman who had friends; a context in which there were children; and some of the "leftover" Susanna Moodie material that was too conjectural for her thesis. The result was an intelligent, quiet book about Judith Gill, a biographer of Susanna Moodie, who also tries to write a novel while on sabbatical in England with her husband. The book signposted some recurring themes: an academic environment with a satirical edge; a middle-class woman who's not entirely content; and a fascination with biography coexistent with an awareness of its limitations. Drawn by her feeling of connection with the past, Shields wanted to fill in the spaces, the silences of Susanna Moodie's life. The things Moodie left out of her own writing were the authentic parts; what's there is less so. It's like reading a negative. "How do you retrieve someone who is dead and try to build up with the nib of your pen that personality who was, in a sense, voiceless about things that mattered?" This is a question she poses again in Swann: A Mystery, in which a quartet of characters try to resurrect the silent, dead poet, Mary Swann, who was brutally murdered by her husband 15 years before the novel begins. Shields's answer is to turn to fiction rather than biography because it can delve into the place where "ninetenths" of our lives occurs: in our heads. "The only story with a nice firm shape to it is the story of a human life," she says, "but so much of it is unknowable." Invention can fill in those gaps. And it can record those small rituals that give ordinary life its continuity. Although the title was serendipitous (chosen by her publisher), a sense of the ceremonial—small ceremonies—is very important to Shields. It's how we keep ourselves glued together and hold emptiness at bay. "Habit is the flywheel of society, conserving and preserving and dishing up tidy, edible slices of the cosmos." (Swann: A Mystery)

It's a philosophy present in all of Shields's writing. "Dailiness to be sure has its hard deposits of ennui, but it is also, as Mary Swann suggests, redemptive."

Carol Shields's 40th birthday was another turning point in her life. After three rejections, a publisher accepted Small Ceremonies, her thesis on Susanna Moodie [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision] was also to be published (as Voice and Vision), and she was off for a year in France during her husband's sabbatical. The day after she arrived in Brittany, she started her next novel, The Box Garden, which takes up the story of Judith Gill's sister, Charleen. "I wanted to get back into a novel quickly," she says. "There is a kind of post-partum feeling after a book." She missed her characters and decided to pick up another thread in the same family. The writing went easily and it too was finished in nine months. In some ways less successful than Small Ceremonies, it suffered from her susceptibility to her editor's advice. Small Ceremonies, she was told, didn't have a lot happening. So Shields added plot, a pseudo-kidnapping and police, to The Box Garden. "You can imagine how I much I know about these things," she says. "I should have listened to my doubts."

Shields looks back on those novels, (soon to be reissued in paperback), and is surprised by how stingy she was with detail. "I think I wrote very thinly. Part of it had to do with only writing for an hour a day and not having time to think over what I was doing. I seemed to write in spare little scenes where you're supposed to pick up the interior sense from exterior details. Now I'm interested in interior details—going really where film and television can't go. I like a dense texture, even in short stories."

In "Collision," an odd story in the new collection, The Orange Fish, Shields describes the accidental collision of two people in a tiny eastern European country. An indigenous film-maker and an American tourist development consultant face a downpour outside a restaurant, where each has been dining with others. Neither can speak the other's language. They share an umbrella for a kilometre to the town square. This linking in time is an example of a recurrent motif in Shields's work—what might be called numinous moments. Fifteen minutes and it's over. But "sacredness attaches itself invisibly to certain rare moments." (The Orange Fish)

Naturally, this is based on Shields's own experience. She was in Tokyo, not Europe, but she walked under a stranger's umbrella, rhythmically in step, and felt that she could have gone on like that forever. "I believe in these moments," she says, "when we do feel or sense the order of the universe beneath the daily chaos. They're like a great gift of happiness that comes unexpectedly."

Shields also recognizes their obverse. Days when she senses the fragility of all our arrangements and how vulnerable we are to loss and tragic reversal. "It doesn't matter how insulated you are," she says, "you have these frightening glimpses of the utter meaninglessness of your life. It's a kind of angst when you suddenly feel that you're alone and powerless and nothing makes any sense. It's the opposite of those transcendental moments when you perceive the pattern of the universe." Shields is interested in capturing both those extremes and finding a language to express them. In Swann: A Mystery, these flashes occur back to back when the 80-year-old retired editor, Frederick Cruzzi, is first blissfully happy with his wife and their simple meal together, and then horror-stricken when he thinks she has inadvertently destroyed Mary Swann's poems. It's not simply alternate joy and despair—each comes with the certainty of revelation.

Swann explores that gap between appearance and reality. What is really at the core of a person? How much do we actually see? The poet Mary Swann herself is a complete unknown, a woman who lived virtually without record. Shields creates four sympathetic characters who appropriate her life, and reconstruct it to fit their needs—and as Shields sees it, their desire to connect with someone. It's Shields's first novel without children, something she only realized after it was finished. Her own children have grown, left home. It's given her greater freedom, but even after four years, she misses them. "It's very hard to sit down at the dinner table with just two people," she says.

There are no conspicuous children in The Orange Fish—except for the occasional childhood flashback of the narrator. Shields likes to play with time. History orders the past, arranging events on a time line. She also projects forward into a future from which to look back on this moment in the present. Sometimes, as in the end of the story, "Hinterland," it's a flattened future, like the images in a pop-up book, recognizable and folded inside each other.

The experimentation that was unleashed in Various Miracles is only partly present in The Orange Fish. There is even a story totally without irony—"not a scrap," she says. "I felt I was so ironic I was getting lockjaw." Shields isn't interested in postmodernism per se, but in the kinds of freedom she can get working out a narrative idea. She figures these kinds of styles are in the air and acquired by osmosis. One friend suggested it came from living in Manitoba, Bob Kroetsch-land, but Shields says no, like most things, it's from reading. Her work has struck responsive chords in other writers—from Kent Thompson's "postcard fiction" to Aritha van Herk, who recently wrote: "I have an image of Carol Shields…. I do not know the real woman, at least not well enough to count, but I do know this floating and powerful florentine engraving on air who nets fictions as turned and strange as brass rubbings, the articulate spines of fish, slender piles of knuckle bones."

Donna Smyth, a Halifax writer, was dazzled by the virtuosity of Swann. "The writing is superb," she says. "And as always with a Carol Shields book, you come away with this reverence for the way we are able to celebrate together what we are and what we don't know about each other. It's a real mystery, that."

Why isn't Shields better known? Is it because quiet books are tagged for quiet promotion? That women's lives and a "domestic" circumference are of only marginal interest? Or that her changing publishers over the years has meant a limited commitment to her as an author? Swann is only now coming out in paperback, a year and a half after publication, (and its nomination for a Governor General's Award). But surely the cumulative impact of The Orange Fish and Swann and Various Miracles within four years, plus the American release of Swann and Various Miracles this spring (by Viking/Penguin) will change that. Or is it the old regional conundrum? Shields hasn't lived in Toronto since she started publishing. She's moved a lot so she hasn't even been identified with a particular "region" and her books are set in France or Chicago or Scarborough—not Winnipeg.

In that last-named city, her spacious apartment overlooks the curve of the Assiniboine River. It's the first time she's ever not lived in a large Victorian house, and she wasn't sure about it at first. The place is on the seventh floor and there are trees that come as high as the windows, lots of light and no curtains. The living room has a fireplace and a wall of books. Shields boasts of only two things—"excellent reading lamps everywhere" and art that she and her husband have been collecting since they first lived in England. Her favorite is a Joe Fafard litho called "Bird's Eye" with an egg-shaped world floating in space and his trademark cows. In her kitchen is a print called "The Orange Fish." Now you feel as if you're inside one of her clever stories; the title story of the new book is about a couple who hang a litho called "The Orange Fish" in their kitchen.

Shields is fascinated by the way we share memories: how even people who are very close will remember things differently. And also, the silences between people, the acceptable silences. Of her early A Fairly Conventional Woman (her favourite of all her novels), she says "I wanted to write about two people who were more or less happily married, but who were, in fact, strangers to each other and always would be, and the value of that strangeness."

Shields's next novel, Bodies of Water, is about love and the search for the other, "or maybe not." Shields feels the need for an other. "Our own lives really aren't quite enough for us, we have to live some of our lives vicariously or it's just too narrow. Who we bump up against, what they mean to us, is what's interesting."

She recalls an image by the 8th-century historian, the Venerable Bede. How our actual life is such a little thing that it's like a bird in the darkness suddenly finding a way into the banquet hall and flying through, looking down at all the banqueters, and then flying out the other side. Shields says what a wonderful image that is, then adds, "I always thought how much better it would be if there were two birds flying together."

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