Dressing Up for the Carnival

by Carol Shields

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753

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...

(This entire section contains 1753 words.)

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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 hybrid stories in this collection, Shields builds a narrative out of what appear to be dissimilar vignettes, thus fusing the realistic with the impossible. In “Dying for Love,” for example, an unknown narrator recounts in detail the events leading up to three women’s attempts at suicide. All three women have been betrayed—by lovers or their own bodies. Though two of the three seem to be contemporaneous with the narrator, at least one seems to inhabit a bygone era. All three have names that are variants of Elizabeth, and all forgo suicide because they are able to create a narrative that will sustain them. For Lizzy, the narrative involves her ability to swim, even if she jumps off the bridge into the water; for Elizabeth, the story involves purchasing some beautiful flowers for her table. As the narrator asserts at the end of the story about Elizabeth:

She is a woman whose life is crowded with not-unpleasant errands and with the entrapment of fragrant, familiar, and sometimes enchanting items, all of which possess a reassuring, measurable weight and volume.

Not that this is much of a handrail to hang on to—she knows that, and so do I—but it is at least continuous, solid, reliable as a narrative in its turnings and better than no handrail at all.

The handrails for each woman are built and sustained by an ability to distract with a story.

Dressing Up for the Carnival also contains several longer stories that more directly resemble Shields’s other works of realism such as The Republic of Love (1992) and Larry’s Party (1997). Many of these longer stories, such as “A Scarf,” “Mirrors,” “New Music,” “The Next Best Kiss,” “Eros,” and “Dressing Down,” contain memorable characters immersed in conflicts with family members, lovers, and friends. These stories also frequently involve characters in moments of crisis, often in search of a narrative that will sustain them. In “Eros,” for example, a narrator describes cancer survivor Ann’s situation at a dinner party. At the table, Ann unexpectedly finds conversation turning to the nature of desire at the same time that the man sitting next to her forces her hand into his pants. What evolves from the horror of this man’s actions, however, is Ann’s story of desire and its place in her life—her first recognition of desire in others, her first glimmers of it in herself, and a moment of fabulous desire near the end of her first marriage. Though her life seems to be in a downhill turn, this moment of remembering and re-creation allows Ann the psychic energy to survive the evening:

But she hangs on to the moment in these difficult days, even at this dinner table with her hand still in the lap of a man named Alex, whom she hardly knows or even likes. She is part of the blissful, awakened world, at least for a moment. What comes in the next hour or the next year scarcely matters.

Other characters in these longer stories find themselves in the business of narrative-making only to have the story backfire. In “A Scarf,” Reta Winters, an award-winning author on tour with her first book, discovers the joys of shopping while trying to find a perfect scarf for her self-effacing middle daughter. As she shops, Reta re-creates her daughter’s nature to the many shop girls, making her seem more finicky and particular. By reenvisioning her daughter in this way, Reta appropriates these same mannerisms, changing into something of a perfectionist herself. She eventually purchases the perfect scarf, and at the close of her day finds it impossible not to relay the story of her shopping and its transformative effect to her longtime friend and fellow writer whom she meets for tea. Because she has couched her story in the abstract and not in the particular, her friend immediately believes the story to be about her, not Reta’s daughter. At the conclusion of “The Scarf,” the friend takes the scarf with tears in her eyes, telling Reta that this purchase has meant more to her than anything else in her life. The narrative, in this case, sustains the friend, though it does not really involve the friend at all. The search for the scarf becomes a tale of solace for the person who hears it.

In the final story in the collection, “Dressing Down,” Shields returns to the first story’s reflections on clothing as artifice. A grandson remembers his grandmother and grandfather, proprietors of Club Soleil, a nudist camp. Every summer the two join others for a month at the camp, though the grandmother consistently hates doing so. To sustain her marriage, however, the grandmother begrudgingly sheds her clothes each summer, and the grandfather accepts her anger at doing so. This breach becomes the story that cannot be shared between them. At her death, however, the grandmother requests to be buried unclothed with the coffin open, something the grandson believes reflects her desire to finish the story of her relationship with her husband, who has preceded her in death. She finally obliges him willingly, finishing the story that the two began in life. The grandson uses this story of their relationship as a way to deal with his own fears of the body and its shames, its “rattling carapace that restricted natural movement and ease.” Though he realizes that his grandparents’ story ends with their death, in the retelling he can find some solace in his own world.

Taken as a whole, the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival seem to defy classification in regard to type and subject matter, but Shields’s use of these seemingly disparate glimpses into storytelling offers the reader the opportunity to build a fiction around the collected pieces, to create his or her own tale. In “Ilk,” Lucy Porter suggests that fiction does not need to be sequential, that it can remain static: “A footstool is all it needs. Or a longing for a footstool.” Certainly Shields provides the reader with plenty of footstools to consider in this illuminating collection of stories about stories.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (April, 2000): 1525.

The Canadian Forum 79 (July/August, 2000): 39.

Library Journal 125 (March 15, 2000): 131.

Macleans (March, 2000): 66.

New Statesman 129 (February, 2000): 58.

New York Review of Books 47 (June 29, 2000): 38.

Publishers Weekly 247 (February, 2000): 56.

Time 155 (May, 2000): 82.

Times Literary Supplement (February, 2000): 58.