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Critical Review by Anita Clair Fellman
SOURCE: "A World Made of Words," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 3, December, 1989, p. 16.
In the following review, Fellman discusses Shields's interest in form and personality in Swann and her investigations into order and chaos in the stories in Various Miracles.
Now that the US and Canada have signed a free trade treaty, perhaps it will be possible for more than one or two Canadian women writers to slip past the US cultural border. High on my list of imports is Carol Shields, whose fifth novel, Swann, and collection of short stories, Various Miracles, have just been published in the US. Shields, who was nominated for a Governor General's Award for Swann, and is the subject of a recent special issue of the Canadian feminist literary quarterly, Room of One's Own, has enriched Canadian fiction writing and poetry, and deserves to be better known in the US. Ironically, although she lives in Winnipeg, she was born and raised in the Chicago area, and takes her settings and her characters from both countries.
The fascination of other people's lives and the essential unknowability of even those closest to us are threads that run through all of Shields' work. She is preoccupied with individuals who work with words and those who perceive the world largely through books. The middle-class protagonists in her first three novels, Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden and Happenstance, are respectively a biographer, a poet and a historian. Although the main characters in each of these novels are psychologically connected, at levels they are not always aware of, they are also profoundly mysterious to each other.
Swann is a bigger, funnier, more dazzling and expansive undertaking than Shields' earlier, somewhat constrained work, concerned not only with the difficulty of knowing other people, but also with the questions posed by the unknown origins of creativity. When it was published in Canada two years ago, the novel was entitled Swann: A Mystery. The mystery is a double one. First and foremost is that of Mary Swann herself. Her drab Ontario farm life offered nothing to explain her "preternatural ability to place two ordinary words side by side and extract a kilowatt, and sometimes more, much more, from them," as one character describes her poetry. Her biographer can find no literary influences on her; not having read any poetry (except nursery rhymes to her daughter), Swann apparently reinvented modern poetry on her own. The second mystery has to do with the gradual disappearance of every artifact pertaining to the poet and of every known copy of her poems. In the course of the novel only one of these two mysteries really gets solved, and that is one that astute readers will readily solve themselves.
The main characters of the book are four very diverse people who have come, in one way or another, to have a stake in Mary Swann's growing literary reputation. Sarah Maloney is a successful young Chicago feminist literary scholar who "discovered" a small volume of Swann's poems by accident more than fifteen years after the poet's inexplicable, violent death at the hands of her husband. Morton Jimroy is a famous Winnipeg biographer of poets. Rose Hindmarch is a part-time librarian and museum curator in the small town near which Swann had lived. And Frederic Cruzzi is a small-town Ontario retired newspaper editor and poetry publisher who had published Swann's poems posthumously.
The motives behind their interest in Swann, revealed in the first four sections of the book, are a combination of the personal and professional. Sarah Maloney is drawn to Mary Swann's poetry because of its affirmation of the redemptive power of dailiness. The ballast of the quotidian is needed in the difficult days of the 1980s, Sarah thinks, and as a feminist she relishes the fact that Mary Swann drew her inspiration from the most mundane of tasks and scenes, creating wonderful poetry premised on the saving grace of routine. Sarah herself needs the reliability of routine; not only does she give her days a firm pattern, but she marries a juggler, someone who can always make order out of flying objects. Having brought Swann to the attention of the world, Sarah now thinks of herself as her maternal caretaker, her protector against the greedy literary men who, she is sure, would eat Swann up "inch by inch."
Morton Jimroy has chosen Swann because after two biographies of poets whom he came to despise as individuals, he wants to write about someone he can admire and champion. Jimroy, however, comes to have as complicated a relationship with Swann as he had with his previous subjects. And in his desire to portray her as an important poet, he begins to reinterpret Swann's poems to minimize the female metaphors, to look for signs that she had transcended her womanhood. "She wasn't writing poems about housewife blues," he tells Rose Hindmarch. "She was speaking about the universal sense of loss and alienation, not about washing machines breaking down."
So eager is the well-meaning Rose to be consulted as the supposed expert on Swann's life that she fabricates whole conversations beyond the minimal greetings she and the poet had exchanged at the library charge desk. For Frederic Cruzzi, the poems are forever associated with his beloved, now-dead wife, who had been co-publisher of their little poetry press, and with his residual guilt for the tinkering they had done, unasked, with Swann's work. All these largely sympathetic characters commit various acts of dishonesty to protect their investment in Swann; Shields gives a wonderfully ironic and funny portrayal of the process of mythologizing a previously unknown literary figure.
For the last several years, Shields has been experimenting with form, and Swann shows the fruits of this experimentation. The four protagonists are each accorded a section of the novel, and in each the style, tone, even voice differ. Sarah Maloney's section reveals her to be an engaging, somewhat self-conscious young woman. Recalling her first meeting with Rose, she confesses, "I often frighten people. I frighten myself, as a matter of fact, my undeflectable energy probably. I did what I could to put Rose at her ease…. In an hour she was won over, so quickly won over that I winced with shame."
Shields' playfulness reaches a peak with Frederic Cruzzi's section, which is something of a parody of Robertson Davies' work. Here there is a selection from Cruzzi's correspondence, a record of his dreams, a description of one of the most important days of his life. There is also a one-sentence autobiography more than a page long, which contains, among other things, a description of Cruzzi's wife-to-be:
a rather large-boned girl with straight yellow hair parted in the middle, who had grown up in the hamlet of La Motte-en-Champsaur (where her father kept goats) and who was possessed of a shining face in which Cruzzi glimpsed the promise of his future happiness, though it took him a week before he found the courage to declare his love—in the museum at Gap, as it happened, standing before a hideous oil painting, even then peeling away from its frame, depicting Prometheus being fawned on by a dozen lardy maidens—
When all four characters are brought together in the last section for the Swann Symposium, which is to be the culmination of their efforts to anoint Swann as a major poet, Shields uses a screenplay form. While inventive, this is not quite as successful as the preceding sections, partly because the satire becomes too broad, but also because the task here is intrinsically more difficult. The convergence of four characters who scarcely know each other, but whom we know quite well, is a little too neat.
Mary Swann was as close to "Anonyma" as it is possible to be in the Western industrialized world. Shields' story suggests that the process of creation, while mysterious, is democratic, and can be communal and open-ended as well.
In Various Miracles, a collection of short stories first published in Canada two years before Swann, Shields explores the parallel to her interest in the mysteriousness of the personality. Here it is our fleeting glimpses of both the order and chaos of the universe that fascinate her. "Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded," begins the title story. A wonderful series of homely coincidences and parallel events is then detailed, including a dream divided between a husband and wife. As the husband awakes from his part of the dream and watches his rapturously dreaming wife, "he felt how utterly ignorant he was of the spring that nourished her life."
For Shields the moments of revelation are more often of unexpected symmetries and "the million invisible filaments of connection" than they are of utter randomness and emptiness. In "Home," each passenger and the pilot on a transatlantic flight experiences, for different reasons, an extraordinary sense of well-being. Their collective happiness causes the walls of their aircraft to become momentarily translucent. In "The Journal," an unknown combination of reasons permits Sally and Harold a night in which "they are minutely and ecstatically joined and where they exchange, as seldom before in their forty-year lives, those perfect notices of affection and trust and rhapsody." These visions of harmony coexist with Shields' depictions of the obverse, the moments of revelation in which people realize the patternlessness of the universe. In "Invitations," a woman seated alone, absorbed in a book, awakens in the stream of people passing by her window on their way to a series of parties a sense of the futility of their destinations, the emptiness and disappointment of their lives. In "Purple Blooms," the narrator gives three dissatisfied people in her life a copy of a book written by a local poet. She sees them all in the park that afternoon, seeking the author's autograph and claiming that the book has helped them make healing connections. The narrator waiting her turn to have her copy signed pulls out another book of poetry to read, this one a celebration of the randomness and disorder of the world. As she reads, with the other people reading over her shoulder, the world around her fades, leaving only "a page of print, a line of type, a word, a dot of ink, a shadow on the retina that is no bigger than the smallest violet in the woods."
The power of the printed word to overcome reality, or, more accurately, to define reality, is the theme of several stories in the collection. In "Pardon," people's deep grievances against each other are miraculously expunged by an unexplained flurry of verbal and written apologies and pardons. In "Words," an ill-considered ban on speech renders people incapable of human intercourse and action.
The 21 stories are economically short. Shields offers intense, layered scenes, rather than elaborated narratives. Each story is a glimpse of a captured moment in a mysterious world. These moments may or may not have deeper meaning. "Only rarely," one of her characters says, "do they point to anything but themselves…. They're useless, attached to nothing, can't be traded in or shaped into instruments to prise open the meaning of the universe … they are what life is made of."
This section contains 1,858 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)