Sunday, March 12, 2017

Novels in novels: the art of Canadian putty

UnlessUnless by Carol Shields

Carol Shields' clear, informal prose contains multiple levels of self-awareness about both its style and content. It could hardly be otherwise when this is a novel by a female Canadian novelist about a female Canadian novelist struggling with a novel.

Although novel-writing is not the main subject of Unless, it is necessarily the means through which the subject is explored and Shields enjoys the chance to slyly comment on her own story-telling, teasing the reader with insights into exactly the dilemmas she must be facing in writing the book we're reading.

She's also careful not to overdo it by building a hall of mirrors. So Shields' novelist, Reta, resists the urge to transplant her latest fictional invention, Alicia, from her job at a fashion magazine to an academic world, whose familiarity would make her life easier to write about. As Reta explains, if Alicia were to start a thesis on Chinese women's poetry, "I would become a woman writing about a woman writing about women writing, and that would lead straight to an echo chamber of infinite regress."

There are plenty of carefully orchestrated echoes in Unless: between Reta's life and that of her novel; between Reta's literary career and that of the older distinguished Canadian writer whose work she translates; between the drama of family life in Reta's home and hints of conflict in the family of its previous owners; most importantly, between Reta's conscious grudging acceptance of a woman's expected role in society ("goodness but not greatness") and her eldest daughter's extreme response, as Reta sees it, to the same realisation.

Reta has been in a local writers' group, and some of what she learns there Shields appears to make use of. The telling details of daily life which add conviction to the story are what a fellow writer calls "putty": "by this she meant the arbitrary, the odd, the ordinary, the mucilage of daily life that cements our genuine moments of being". A writer must be constantly looking out for useful putty, such as "buttonholes, for instance, they way they shred over time, especially on cheap clothes." Not a such a telling observation perhaps, but good enough to put into the mouth of an aspiring writer.

Shields' art is in making the putty indistinguishable from the weight-supporting beams of the plot - just as in life, when it is often only in retrospect that we can see the significance of an event or even a remark.

If anything, to my mind, the plot is a little too sturdily constructed. Further into the book, the characters seem to lose their autonomy and there's a sense that a grand plan is being played out too precisely. We can feel the end coming and, just before it, there's a debate about the endings of novels which, we know, will be resolved in our novel by page 213. That awareness is in danger of reducing Reta and her fellow players to ciphers. The male characters in particular have never been much more.

For all that, Unless is an absorbing, enjoyable book that's made me want to read more of Carol Shields. She talks to her reader directly and moves the story along in surprising ways. It's a book driven by ideas rather that characters but contains enough wholesome putty to join the hard surfaces with wit and ingenuity.

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