Dressing Up for the Carnival

by Carol Shields

Published by Random House

237 pages, 2000


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Opening Closet Doors

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman

 

A new book by Carol Shields is like a letter from a longtime friend. You know that she is warm, witty and wise. You also know that she has been struggling recently. You wonder whether pain will have darkened her insights, whether the carnival this lady is dressing for tonight is on Desolation Row.

"Carnival" suggests a circus or a freak show, yet none of the huge cast of characters in the 22 stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival is out of the ordinary. They are male and female and range in age from seven to near 90. For the most part, they live in mainstream Canada, the continental United States and the islands of Great Britain. They are conventional individuals in relationship and in community, people we would likely not notice if our paths were to cross theirs on any downtown street. They are our colleagues, our neighbors, ourselves. Yet in these stories, we see them differently. This carnival they are getting ready for is not a midway but a Mardi gras, an annual excess of exuberance, a frantic burning off of butter and grease and wine, before the asceticism of Lent and the desolation of Good Friday. At Mardi gras, if you attend, you participate. No one goes just to look, to watch; you have to wear a costume if you don't want to stand out.

These costumed characters would remain strangers, their secrets forever hidden, if we could not get to look into their closets where the hook of every iron coat hanger is "a question mark" sparking a story. Carol Shields opens the closet doors. Then, with her ever-generous spirit, she entertains us with what she has seen. She peeks, then tells us about the hand in the stranger's crotch covered discreetly by the tablecloth. Shields becomes both the ventriloquist and the ventriloquist's dummy, assuming many personae, throwing their voices back at us from the dark corners and unexpected angles of familiar places. She fuses subject and object, like plywood and paint, like glass and silver, reflecting light out at us. She focuses our attention, not on the carnival, but on the closets. More specifically, on the "getting ready," on the "dressing." The choices people make. Her stories inhabit the spaces between the darkness and the public street.

In these stories, Shields' warmth is ever present. There is no physical violence or crime and only one accident. There is a little guilt but a total rejection of shame. Women work and cook and shop and meet for lunch and attend dinner parties. Some of them raise children alone. Some of them contemplate suicide but choose life. Some of them survive cancer to celebrate being "part of the blissful awakened world."

Shield's wit also permeates this collection. You find it in the "what-ifs" that are the kernels of several stories. What if, as in "Absence," your "I" key were broken and you had to typewrite a story without it? What would change? What would you learn, about your language, or about yourself? What if, as in the story, "Weather," the meteorologists went on strike and there was, literally, no weather? What if mirrors were banned? What if a married couple disagreed about attending a nudist camp? How would they resolve it? What accommodations could be made? Who would learn what?

There is also humor in irony. A queen withdraws, retires from life, allergic to time, or sequence, or narrative, with its implied ending. University professors in several different stories hoist themselves on their own petards. With "hyperverbal compulsion" they abuse language; use conversation as a shield to prevent communication, to protect their own denials. As Mrs. Winters puts it in "The Scarf:" "Not knowing how to ask for what we don't even know we want." This same character, a novelist, bemoans the way "accessibility shackled the book to minor status." There is a little in-joke, self-mocking, in the garden image of her novel's title: My Thyme Is Up. In another story, the writer Edith-Esther's biographer, imposing his own agenda, is blind to important facts while the narrator herself seems unreliable, blinkered by her own denials of spirit and soul.

The wisdom in this book lies in its continued celebration of life and the force of life. In its rituals of food and feeding. In the revelation of patterns: the decades of an "artiste's" life; the making of breads; the diversification of economies; reactions to government controls and taxes, to infidelities and accidents. There is wisdom in the solace of work and children and long-term relationships and play. In the awareness of the function of dream, of imagination, of narrative, of art. In the acceptance of death as part of a good life. In the possibility of expiation. The book opens with a girl pushing a pram and ends with the naked body of an old woman in a simple pine box -- an image of repentance and of the possibility of redemption. Not desolation but consolation. Neither closeted nor clothed. A subtle reminder that there is always morning. That every sunrise is Easter Monday, and you have found a new scarf, "a scrap of silk, a dream of transformation." You attach it to "a handrail of narrative;" you "choose a measure of comfort." Even joy.

I don't mean to be reductive. There is much more in these stories, expressed more beautifully, with ambiguity, nuance, subtext, play. But for me, the thrill of this book is the idea that we choose our attitudes the same way as we choose what to don each morning, before we choose to join the crowds in the street.

Carol Shields' 1995 novel The Stone Diaries won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor General's Award for Literature. Her subsequent novel, Larry's Party, received the Orange Prize. Since 1972, Shields has published nine novels, poetry, criticism and plays. Dressing Up for the Carnival is her third collection of short stories. | April 2000

 

J. M. Bridgeman is Contributing Editor at Suite 101.