Sunday, November 16, 2008

Guest post (Debbie Mutford) - Carol Shields: Dressing Up For The Carnival

I started this book the first week of the challenge in July. I had great hopes of participating in this challenge, supporting my husband's blog (for which I admittedly pay little attention to, despite intentions), and doing more leisure reading. Instead, it has taken me over four months (120+ days) to read 237 pages. I'm blaming the lack of productivity on the choice of book (we'll see if that's true over the next few weeks as I've now chosen a book that I've previously loved to motivate me back into the spirit of the challenge and finish twelve books in eight months).

I chose Carol Shields' book of short stories primarily because I had previously read her novel Unless with mixed feelings. I guess you could say that I disliked the book as a whole. I didn't like it because it lacked enough plot to keep me entertained, however, once done, I missed the characters. I found myself attached to them and thinking about them as one does with old high school or university buddies; people interesting enough to wonder whatever happened to them yet not acquainted closely enough to warrant any real contact. I felt like I needed to find out through the grapevine the happenings of Reta since I last heard from her in the book. Thus, I concluded that Shields' talent was in the development of characters tragically trapped in dull, pointless lives (a little too realistic for my taste in entertainment).

Dressing Up for the Carnival is a collection of twenty-two short stories, most of which confirm my previous conclusion. The book reads more like a bunch of first chapters to novels waiting to be finished. The characters, settings, main themes are developed nicely and often touch on subject matter worthy of more depth, yet they just cease to continue. At the end of each story I kept hoping for a secret fold-out page outlining what actually happened to the people she had introduced me to. Avoiding plot altogether, she hides her talent (and lack thereof) in a genre of story writing where readers typically expect snippets so less development is required. Many good short stories still satisfy my need for purpose, but Shields absolves herself of any true commitment to her characters and divorces them before I'm ready.

When Shields has developed a solid character, instead of progressing a storyline she simply adds more characters. The short story 'Keys' is a prime example: meet Biff Monkhouse, the Dr Marianne Moriarty (and her mother and then her lover), Christopher MacFarlane, Cheryl Spence, the Museum of Keys founder (and his wife), and a seven year old boy. It could be argued that the whole purpose of the story is to follow a key (or set of keys) but that's not the case. It could be said that the characters are all linked in their experiences with keys, but that would be difficult to establish. I found the transitions between characters to be weak with brief conjunctions and limited connectivity. It was simply a bunch of people who happened to have an encounter with a key (or keys) each with their own story to be told but never given the chance.

Most of the stories left me with the feelings I imagine associated with extensive traveling - you get to meet a whole bunch of fabulous people during a single moment of their lives but the pre and post events will forever be a mystery. There are two exceptions where Shields creates either a plot or a purpose. 'Absence' is a story centred around the frustrations of an author using a typewriter with a broken letter i. While there's still not much of a storyline (just the introduction of what the story could have been), at least there's a purpose. Shields herself doesn't use the letter i and I could feel the connection between Shields and her main character. I imagined both brains searching for synonyms. It's a catchy gimmick and I can see her purpose...too bad it doesn't go anywhere.

The one story that I believe can be considered a story (in that is has a beginning, middle, and end) is 'The Scarf'. Shields goes against her own plotless formula and creates a problem for the character that actually gets resolved (or at least ends on some level). This is completely spoiled, however, when her character (again, an author) blatantly shoves my enjoyment in my face.
Dorothy and Clarence are...simple in their judgments, and Dorothy in particular is fond of repeating her recipe for enduring fiction. 'A beginning, a middle, and an ending,' she likes to say. 'Is that too much to ask!'

This is quite obviously a swipe at readers like me who expect more from her. I understand her attempt to quell her critics, but resent that it had to be in the one and only story I'd been swept into. It leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth and ruins the sixteen pages of what I perceive to be her best writing.

I generally enjoy her vocabulary and she obviously has a talent with words. Her flair for descriptions is what hooks my interest and I quickly become attached to some of the characters. A book of short stories (aka character introductions) was a great way for her to do what she does best - create personalities. However, I need more. She may call me "simple in [my] judgments" but I don't understand why she wouldn't want to do more with her characters. She surrounds herself with wonderfully captivating people and disregards any need to let them do something. Shelved away, there are a bunch of great characters waiting for their chance to live a life, solve a problem, tell a story.


Bybee said...

Nice to see you posting, Debbie! I've got Dressing Up For The Carnival on my TBR..there's a vague plan to read it for the Canadian Book Challenge. Maybe I should try Larry's Party instead.

Anonymous said...

I also have Dressing Up for the Carnival on my TBR pile but no immediate plans to read it (for this challenge or any other). I appreciated your thoughtful comments and I suspect that I will feel the same way about the book. I generally don't like short stories as I often feel they don't develop the plot as much as I need. Before you give up on Carol Shields though I recommend you read The Stone Diaries. I don't know anyone who hasn't liked it.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of trying another book by Carol Shields, but feel a little apprehensive about reviewing it for the challenge. In case there are many Shields fans out there, I wouldn't want to criticize a third book. But I'll put it on my TBR list and maybe mention it on the blog if I like it.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Great review! It really does sum up a lot of my feelings about both this collection of short stories and Unless. I think that Carol Shields' short story were most successful (for me anyway) when she wrote about small domestic battles and less experimentally as she did in Dressing Up for the Carnival.

Wanda said...

Unless was my first and thus far, only Carol Shields read. Having two daughters of my own, one a teenager, I felt I should have been more interested in the story. Instead, I dragged myself through to the ending. It was a weird feeling not caring about her characters.

Your review of Dressing Up for the Carnival helps confirm my decision not to give this particular author another go.