Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816
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 moment of intimacy that she knows occurs only two or three times in one’s life.
Only a few stories in Various Miracles are longer, more substantial examinations of character. For example, “Fragility” explores a man’s point of view as he and his wife look for a home in a new area after the death of their son. “Others” is about a simple, friendly gesture which initiates a couple’s yearly receipt of a Christmas card. Although Shields begins the story with a serendipitous event, as she usually does, the piece is really about the parallel development of two marriages, the distant one serving as a mirror template of the primary one.
Shields admitted that she was always compelled by the idea of transcendental moments in which one is occasionally able to glimpse a kind of pattern in the universe. She said that each of the stories in Various Miracles hangs on this faith and the question of what one is to do with such moments. She also said that she used the Emily Dickinson quote “Tell the truth but tell it slant” as an epigraph to her first collection of short stories because she liked to use various angles of perspective. Her favorite means of writing was to set up a story conventionally and then turn it upside down. There is always a technical problem in writing, said Shields, and often a problem gave her something on which to hang the fiction. Sometimes a word or a phrase begins a story, a problem or a puzzle, something odd or surreal that does not quite fit in. Shields would begin with some point that interested her and then piece the story together, writing it over and over until it got longer and thicker.
Shields’s second collection, The Orange Fish (1989), begins with a witty title story which sums up the nature of most of the collection’s stories. Although there is more focus on character than in the first collection, these stories are short separate tales connected together rather than extended narratives. “Orange Fish” is about a couple who buys a lithograph of orange fish to hang in their home. The picture has an extraordinary effect on all those who see it, and it becomes a treasured piece, only finally to be copied endlessly and therefore cheapened and destined to fade into insignificance.
“Hazel” focuses on a woman who tries to make a life for herself and become independent after the death of her husband by demonstrating kitchen gadgets in department stores. Although she becomes very successful, she knows that all of her success is an accident, that things occur by happenstance and that such is the heart of life itself. Other more substantial character-based stories include “Hinterland,” in which a middle-aged married couple go to Paris and are frightened by a bomb scare in 1986, and “Family Secrets,” which takes the form of several separate stories which explore a young woman’s coming to terms with the secret of her mother’s mysterious illness.
Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), Shields’s final collection, seems to revert back to her original interest in “what if” concept stories, although here they become more fanciful, more self-conscious, and therefore more postmodern in their explorations of the interrelationship between fiction and reality. The title story is a parable about people in a town putting on costumes each day, illustrating that one cannot live without one’s illusions. In “The Scarf,” a story which was the basis for Shields’s final novel, Unless (2002), a middle-aged writer wins a small literary prize for her first novel and must then embark on a modest promotional tour around the United States. She is bemused and a little embarrassed by the lack of interest in her work at her bookstore appearances.
“Weather” is a satirical parable about the weather ceasing to exist when the meteorologists go on strike. “Ilk” is an academic satire of postmodern jargonistic literary theory. Shields is more effective when her “what if” stories examine individual characters rather than abstract ideas. For example, there is a certain poignancy and truth in “Mirrors,” about an aging couple who do not permit any mirrors or other reflective surfaces in their vacation home, thus enforcing a sort of vacation from focusing on the self.
Shields’s playful experiments sometimes become tours de force of cleverness and ingenuity. For example, in “Absence,” a writer discovers that a certain vowel key, denoting the very letter that signifies the “hungry self,” no longer works on her typewriter. The dilemma she faces is how to write her story without a first-person pronoun, a problem she tackles as being similar to the limitations of the sonnet form. As one follows the struggles of the fictional writer, one only gradually becomes aware that Shields has written her entire three-and-a half-page story without a single “I,” a feat that may make one smile with admiration but which, after all, is merely a highly skilled trick. Too many examples of the jeu d’esprit story in one collection can become tedious.
That many of the central characters in Shields’s stories are artists should alert the reader to the fact that the author is using the short-story form to play literary games about the nature of the imagination. For example, “Invention” begins with Shields’s examinations of seemingly trivial inventions, such as the steering wheel muff, but becomes a story about the invention of invention itself; that is, the discovery of how art itself comes into being. In it, a Greek shepherd boy makes the startling discovery that he can dream by day as well as by night. In “Windows,” a window tax is imposed on the citizenry, making the economy-minded board up their sources of light. However, in a classic example of art triumphing over reality, a couple of painters paint a window over their boarded-up one, providing themselves not with real light but with the idea of light, which is even more alluring than light itself. The art window becomes ever better than a real window in its presentation of all that is ideal and desirable in the sensual world.
The only previously unpublished story in the volume is “Segue,” written as the first chapter of a novel Shields was working on when she died. (Her daughter prepared the piece for publication.) About a sixty-seven-year-old woman who writes a sonnet every fourteen days, the work stands alone as an independent story about Shields’s fascination with frozen moments of transcendence created within the seeming restrictions of literary form.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 13, 2005, p. 6L.
Booklist 101, no. 8 (December 15, 2004): 709.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 3 (February 1, 2005): 149.
Library Journal 130, no. 1 (January, 2005): 104.
Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2005, p. R8.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (February 6, 2005): 22.
Publishers Weekly 252 (January 24, 2005): 223.
The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 6, 2005, p. B1.
The Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 2004, p. 21.