Carol Shields is better known and more respected as a novelist than she is as a short-story writer, having established her reputation with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Stone Diaries (1993). “Light and breezy” is a phrase often used to describe her short stories. Whereas Shields appears most interested in the realistic exploration of character in her novels, her stories seem primarily intent on examining ideas; these stories are frequently little “what if” concept pieces or considerations of common objects and phenomena. To call Shields’s stories experimental, as many reviewers have, may be to dignify them with more weight than she intended to give them. One critic has described her witty fictional forays as “Borges-lite,” but that, too, may connote more philosophical implications than many of her stories deserve. After all, the word “experimental” perhaps should not be confused with “fooling around” with little narrative essays on the metaphoric significance of such things as keys, or windows, or the weather.
Shields once told an interviewer that her earliest writing began with short stories. Although the form was not one that interested her much, she said that she did not think she could write a novel until she served some sort of apprenticeship in the shorter form. After writing several forgettableas she termed themshort stories, she turned to poems, which she thought of as little toys one carries around in the head. Years later, after beginning to write novels, she returned to the short-story form when she got stuck in the middle of her novel Swann (1987) and decided to spend a year experimenting with different narrative approaches, having in mind about twenty short stories from various imaginative angles. The book that resulted from these experiments was Various Miracles (1985), and the year she spent on it she considered a sort of mini-sabbatical. This attitude suggests a crucial difference between the short stories of Shields and her Canadian colleague Alice Munro, who uses the short form to explore complex human interactions.
All of Shields’s previously published short stories are included in Collected Stories. Her three collections span three decades. Typical of Shields’s kind of story is the title piece of her first collection, Various Miracles, for it signals both her delight in coincidences and her interest in the intersection between fiction and reality. After listing several anecdotal coincidences, such as the time three strangers riding on a bus were reading the same novel, Shields narrates this longer anecdote: A writer takes her manuscript to a publisher who had earlier expressed some reservations that the novel depended too heavily on coincidences. A gust of wind blows it out of her hands, and she has to retrieve the separate sheets which have landed all over the street, only to discover that one page is missing. Later, a woman in a red coat finds the missing page while buying zucchini in a grocery store. The first lines of the page describe a woman in a red coat buying zucchini in a grocery store.
“Scenes” has a similar feel to it. Various incidents from the life of a woman named Frances are described, ending with a conviction central to Shields’s short stories, that scenes are what a life is made of, little keys on a chain that open nothing but simply exist for their beauty and the way they chime in her pocket.
Shields likes to create lists of objects as well as incidents. She uses such objects as metaphors for various aspects of the way she perceives the whimsical nature of reality. “Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls” describes a half-dozen different experiences one woman has with dolls. “Invitations” is about a series of five invitations a woman receives to parties, all for the same Saturday evening. When she begins to imagine that something is conspiring to consume a portion of her life by taking possession that particular evening, she decides to stay home. Some of these “list” stories are about little events of everyday life which achieve some sort of transcendent meaning. For example, “Taking the Train” is about one woman’s experience of separate moments of unsharable significance, such as listening to a special song or finding a rare manuscript in a museum. “The Journal” is about a woman who keeps a diary on the travels she and her husband make, finally describing a rare...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)