Dressing Up for the Carnival, Carol Shields’s first collection of short stories since The Orange Fish (1989), marks her serious return to that form, though one should not expect to find a seamlessly connected, easily categorized group of tales. The stories differ substantially in length, point of view, subject matter, and overall effect. Though the title story, “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” suggests that the collection may be about a person’s ability to re-create himself or herself through various forms of artifice, the rest of the collection hints that Shields sees the nature of this artifice as the power of storytelling. Each of her stories relays how creating, hearing, or ignoring a narrative can either sustain a character or cripple that character’s ability to connect with those around him or her. Though storytelling, like clothing, often covers up as much as it reveals, Shields weaves stories within stories to show the power of the narrative impulse. She does not, however, see all tales as being equally valuable or hopeful. She often cynically derides characters who create stories at the expense of others. However, as Lucy Porter, the first-person narrator of “Ilk,” says of another character’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.” Shields seems to suggest that people use stories as a way to “dress up” for the “carnival” of life, that everyone feels “a yearning to know its story.”
Shields couches these thematic concerns in stories that allow her to experiment with form and style, exploring the concept from different vantage points while showcasing the range of her own storytelling abilities. In doing so, she alternates narration techniques so that a consistent voice does not emerge from the relatively unlinked stories. Most daringly, however, she uses a variety of story forms. In some of the shorter pieces in the collection such as “Flatties: Their Various Forms and Uses,” “Stop!,” “Absence,” and “The Harp,” Shields strips narratives of character development, obliging the reader to see them as something akin to parable or fable. “Absence,” for example, opens with a woman trying to type a story. By the middle of the text, the reader discovers that the woman is using a typewriter that does not have a workable letter “I.” The third-person narrator then explores what the woman cannot write because of the missing letter. In the end, however, the story does not simply reflect on the limitations of this thwarted storytelling process, but rather on the ingenuity of the woman who can create a version to suit her circumstances.
The majority of the stories in the collection offer a blend of fable and realistic fiction. This blurring works to Shields’s advantage, allowing her to make broader statements on the effects of narrative on human behavior, while at the same time showcasing her talent for creating vibrant scenes. In “Weather,” for example, the narrator seems to be involved in a problematic relationship with her gardener husband until it becomes apparent that the characters believe that when meteorologists go on strike, all weather ceases. In this case, the meteorologist’s narrative both literally and figuratively creates the weather, a parable against relying on a third person to tell the story that others should be able to tell themselves.
In “Edith-Esther,” a similar sort of bungling occurs. A biographer hounds a once-famous but mostly senile writer in attempts to get factual information about her spiritual journey. Edith-Esther does not have a story of faith and can barely answer the questions about her books because of senility. Eventually she tells the biographer that she gave up the Church when Father Albert attempted to molest her. At this point the biographer declares that he cannot use this information because it borders on cliché. The biographer then retells Edith-Esther’s life so convincingly—and incorrectly—that he creates a best-seller about her spiritual quest. Edith-Esther seems to copy his distorting abilities when she believes her arm to be a root and hacks at it with a knife—a literal trope for the effects of distortion in the narrative process.
In others of the...
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