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A Bit More Carol Shields

February 17, 2008

Short Story ChallengeAfter skipping last Short Story Sunday, I’m back, and now I’ve completed Shields’ collection Dressing Up for the Carnival.  First of all, as I’ve read more and more short story collections, I’ve noticed that they tend to be remarkably short!  This one, at just over 200 pages, seemed longer than usual, lol.  The novels I prefer tend to be at least 350 pages: less than that, and I usually feel cheated.  With short stories, though, the shorter length of the collections seems to work-it gives enough stories for the author to play, but so many that it begins to feel tedious.  Weird!

But back to the topic of the day.  I really expected to love this entire collection, after it got off to such a great start.  (Remember how much I loved “The Scarf” and “Dressing Up for the Carnival”?)  In all honesty, however, Shields’ writing style tended to keep a fair distance between me and the characters, which made the stories feel flat.  She tends to depend on an omniscient, third-person narrator that almost feels like God, which is a bit disorienting. So, while I might admire Shields’ techniques (Her four-page story, “Absence,” in which she avoids one vowel entirely was neat), I didn’t care about most of the people I met between the pages.  Let me give you a random example of this distance:

Only think of Ronald Graham-Sutcliffe in his Dorset garden among his damasks and gallicas. Modern roses do not interest Mr. Graham-Sutcliffe. They remind him of powder puffs, and of periods of his life that strike him as being unnecessarily complicated. He still feels a stern duty to weight the suffering in every hour, but this duty is closely followed by a wish to obliterate it. He pulls on his Wellingtons in the morning, every morning now that he’s retired, and does a quick stiff-legged patrol among his fertile borders.

When I first encountered this tone, I enjoyed the novelty of it. However, it quickly became boring, since I was always kept at arm’s length from the story and the people within it. It was really frustrating-often I could tell that I could be really into a story, if only it were written with a bit of warmth.

That being said, I did enjoy four of the later stories in the collection: “Ilk,” “Keys,” “Invention,” and “Dressing Down.” “Ilk” is written in first-person, and the narrator is a young women academic. Through the course of a conversation at an academic convention, the narrator weaves past memories with her current concerns about being offered a position. It’s done quite skillfully, and the narrator is hilarious, in a very droll way. Here’s one of my favourite parts:

And I’m not just talking minimalism here. I’m saying that fiction’s clothes can be folded so small they’d fit inside a glass marble. You could arrange them on those little plastic doll hangers and hook them over the edge of Dick Wentworth’s name tag. There’s a bud of narrativity opening up right there behind the linked lettering, as there is beneath all uniquely arbitrary signs. There’s (A) the dickness of Dick, all it says and gestures toward. And (B) the sur/surname, Wentworth, with its past-tense failure rubbing up against the trope of privilege, not to mention (C) the underground wire pulling on Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Like it or not, Professor Wentworth’s name bursts with narrative chlorophyl.

“Keys” is a meditation on the value of said implements to North Americans: why do we have so many keys? The various stories about how we might have come across them. The meanings we attach to them. And “Inventions” is a discussion of little-thought-about inventors (such as the narrator’s grandmother, who invented steering wheel muffs).

Finally, “Dressing Down” ends the collection (I loved the full-circle feel of that) and focuses on a narrator’s memories of his grandfather, who founded a nudist colony that he spent every July in, and his grandmother, who reluctantly went along with her husbund for the sake of marital harmony. Check out this description of the grandmother:

Her interest was in covering up, not stripping down. The same week she married my grandfather she’d had curtains and heavy draperies made for the windows of the house they nought on Macklin Avenue. By the following summer slipcovers dressed the wicker porch furniture. Scarves in broiderie angalise adorned every bureau. Pillows in my grandparents’ house were fitted with undercovers as well as overcovers, and she herself sewed a sort of skirt in flowered chintz, which was tied prettily with bias tape aroudn the wringer washing machine when it was not in use. Lace doilies sat on the arms and back of every chair. Woolen throws were flung across the various sofas. Rugs aly scattered everywhere upon the thick carpets. Fullness, plumpness, doubleness. Hers was a house where one could imagine the possibility of suffocation.
Her own clothing, needless to say, comprised layers of underclothes, foundation garments, garters and stockings, brassieres, camisoles, slips, blouses, cardigans, lined skirts, aprons, and even good aprons worn over everyday aprons. Her mind drifted towrd texture, fabric, protection, and warmth, as though she could never burrow deeply enough into the folds of herself.

Thus, I have a mixed reaction to the book as a whole: the first couple could be among my favourite short stories ever, while some of the others had me counting pages to see when they would end. All in all, I think this collection would work better if a reader spread out the individual stories over a long time (maybe a week in between each) rather than going through them all at once. That way, the God-style narration wouldn’t feel so old halfway through the book.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2008 10:33 am

    Thanks for your interest in short stories.
    The value certainly is there.

  2. February 18, 2008 3:32 pm

    I’m answering your question in the comments of an earlier post here instead.

    I did my master’s at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

    My career is on permanent hold at the moment, so I’m jealous of it too. Unless you were talking about my mommy career, not the refugee work career. :)

  3. February 18, 2008 9:51 pm

    I’ve read several of Carol Shields’s novels but none of her short stories. You’ve got me intrigued! I’ll have to check out one of her collections.

  4. February 19, 2008 11:45 am

    That’s a shame about the flat-feeling, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.

  5. February 21, 2008 5:42 am

    Terry, ok.

    Alisia, aww-your daughter’s cute enough for me to be jealous of her too! :) But I was talking about your refugee career-it just seemed so interesting!

    Kate, I hope you enjoy them!

    Aka Nik, glad I’m not the only one-the flat feeling is so frustrating.

  6. February 21, 2008 9:44 am

    I used to love anthologies/short stories, but now I find they don’t tend to give me enough time & depth to really get into a story the way I like to. There are definitely some that are still quite good and that I enjoy, but it’s just a personal preference that has evolved over time.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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