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Dressing up for the Carnival

by Carol Shields

V.S. Pritchett used to say that he wrote short stories because he was a man of short breath. Raymond Carver’s excuse (as reported by Richard Ford): he was drunk a lot and the kids were driving him crazy, and he didn’t have the concentration for anything longer. Sometimes he went out and wrote in a parked car.

My first concern should probably be for Pritchett’s lungs and Carver’s kids, but reading those lines again, it’s another worry that surfaces. How is it that two of the finest short story writers ever to have practiced felt the need to – well, if they’re not quite apologizing for their chosen form, then aren’t they edging around to some kind of justification?

Maybe it’s just a problem of public relations. I doubt that Pritchett or Carver ever really doubted in the powers or the possibilities of stories. Yet there is a perception that the short story is somehow a lesser form, not only shorter than the novel, but also lighter fare, easier to write, altogether junior in rank.

That’s all bushwa. I know that. So when I saw that Carol Shields was publishing a collection of stories, why did I think Here’s a novelist taking a bit of a break, resting up, stretching her legs? It was only a reflex, gone in a moment, but it was shocking enough. Only after I’d served an afternoon’s self-sentence reading Alice Munro, William Trevor, and Lorrie Moore did I feel I’d done penance.

Shields is not a mere novelist, of course, she’s published two previous collections of stories, Various Miracles (1985) and The Orange Fish (1989). Having read the 22 stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival, I have no hesitation in saying that she’s mastered the form just as surely as Munro, Trevor, and Moore.

In one of the stories here, Shields writes of a woman who comes to understand that she’s “scheduled to have a double existence – an open life in which her actions were plainly visible, and a hidden life where thought and intention squatted darkly.” Shields deserves the praise she’s won for her ability to penetrate and apprehend the hidden places of (so-called) ordinary lives of women like Daisy Goodwill and men like Larry Weller. However, I don’t know that she’s been sufficiently celebrated as a comic writer.

Reading Shields, laughter is a constant. In Dressing Up for the Carnival, it’s there in the broad absurdist satire of “Reportage” (where a ruin of a Roman arena is discovered in rural Manitoba) and “Weather” (it just stops when the meteorologists go on strike). Elsewhere it’s more environmental, a product of Shields’ wit and the joy she takes in language.

Mostly though, the laughter goes back to her gifts of apprehension, it’s the laughter of recognition, and it’s prompted by the truth she turns up. In Shields, that means a lot of painful particulars: lonelinesses, cancers, silences that move in between long-married couples, spooky as a stranger in the house.

These stories are full of retreats, small surrenders, looming defeats. There’s the woman in “Dying For Love” who understands that she’s lost forever the power to stir ardour. In “A Scarf,” another woman convinces herself she can transform her daughter’s life with the right gift of neckwear, which she finds – and then promptly loses.

Dressing Up for the Carnival is a book that’s furious with active brains, characters who are academics, biographers, writers, researchers, experts, people who got the idea, somewhere, that the world could be solved by rational study. Really, they’re just like the rest of us, they’re dreamers and fools, trying to make do, to pull their dignity up like covers to the chin, to go forward. There’s a line from the story “Absence” that neatly tells the tale of Shields’ fictional world: “There was no escape and scarcely any sorrow.”

The best fiction soars off into mystery and disruptiveness – Shields said that a couple of years ago, I have it jotted down in the notebook I keep to record felicitous phrases, sentences I wish I’d written, notions that might, just possibly, help me with my life. The disruptive part is what applies when it comes to the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival: they delight and stir, they clarify and they challenge. They show us who we are and at the same time they change the way we look at everything.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Random House Canada


Price: $32.95

Page Count: 238 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-679-31021-5

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 2000-2

Categories: Fiction: Short

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