This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 15, 2002
Shields, Carol (Profile)
It was a radiant day last summer when Carol SHIELDS returned home to Winnipeg, a shimmering day in early July. But by late afternoon, the heat was beginning to take its toll, and it would be some time before the city's canopied elms would work their evening magic, casting shadows down the boulevard. For that reason, her daughter Catherine was working overtime, struggling through the overflow crowd at the welcome-home party with bottles of chilled wine and pitchers of lemonade. In a few minutes, the impressive group of writers, academics and assorted loved ones, happily shoehorned into Catherine's home in River Heights, would be raising their beaded glasses in a toast to the 66-year-old novelist, newly bestowed with the Order of Manitoba. Without a doubt, an honour less illustrious than Shields' Pulitzer or Orange Prizes, her Governor General's Literary Award or her National Book Critics Circle Award. But deeply meaningful nonetheless: a tribute to her many accomplishments in the city where she spent two decades, the creative birthplace of such novels as The Republic of Love, THE STONE DIARIES and Larry's Party.
Since her breast cancer diagnosis in 1998, and a move to Victoria in 2000, these visits have become rare, and increasingly precious. Which explains why, as Don, her husband of 44 years, circulated through the room, Carol sat near the open door to the garden, doing one of the things she does best: sharing thoughts about writing with other writers. Cradling a friend's hand in her own, Shields confided that yes, her new novel was going very well. After a somewhat rocky start, and being waylaid by treatments in the spring, she was making the most of these good days. Yes, she was certain she was now over the main arc of the book, and the end was in sight. "I got this book off on the wrong foot," Shields explained in her soft, articulate voice, "writing about breast cancer because I had all this information. But it was just making me sad. I had to pick the book apart with jeweller's tweezers - which always breaks your heart a bit. But now it feels like I'm soaring."
And her friend's book: surely he must be nearing the end as well? "Actually," he confessed, "I'm lost. It's like a bush pilot once said when we hit a huge patch of fog: 'I've no idea where we're headed, but we're sure making good time.'" "You must know whether you're close," said Shields, beaming her generous, lopsided smile. "Of course, there are no rules. As John Mortimer once said when someone asked, 'How long is a play?' 'Oh, about as long as a piece of string.' I'm sure the same applies to novels."
Days later, she was happily ensconced back in Victoria, cooking rice for a dinner party, one of the first social events she and Don had been able to initiate after a difficult spring - "just seven people, the perfect number." Not nine, the number invited to the closing feast in Larry's Party? "Seven is perfect: small enough for one conversation instead of two - and being an odd number, you can include the uncoupled."
Clearly, Shields was in her element. As a professor of English, she used to ask her students to answer the following: routine deadens the soul - yes or no? Without fail, they always answered yes. "I thought someone might have come out in favour of routine as a sustaining force," said Shields, pausing to stir the rice. This was a good spell: each day, she was logging 650 words in the little sewing room overlooking the garden. "I do it with the greatest immersion and excitement," said Shields. "In fact, I hate leaving that little room right now. I feel more at ease with writing this novel than with others. Cancer makes one serious, and awake. I have had time to pay attention to certain questions that have been hovering for years. And since it is probably my last novel, I feel I can be braver."
Braver about what? "Well, feminist rage, certainly. It's going to take a lot longer than anyone in the 1970s ever thought for women to become fully human, in all that that implies. The curious thing is that day to day, we forget because the air that we breathe is full of the agreements we have come to accept. Otherwise, we would be in a rage all the time, and no one can afford that. We have become accustomed to this level of oxygen and we feel easy enough with it to make minor protests. But in fact, the air is not good for us." She paused. "I think if you were to persist and ask men if they were interested in the lives of women, eventually you would get them to the wall and they would say no, not really. Men aren't interested in the lives of women, in how their synapses connect. Whereas we're interested in the lives of men. Women carry this narrative of deprivation, and live with it - without rage - until something happens to ignite it."
Nine months later, Shields' highly anticipated 10th novel, Unless, has just hit the bookstores. Yes, in relative terms, a shortish piece of string - and without question, her most powerful novel to date. Certainly, her most overtly feminist, at once witty and acute, deeply intelligent and profoundly tender. And as promised, brave - particularly in its exploration of what George Eliot once called "that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
At 43, Reta Winters is a woman with many blessings: three healthy teenage daughters; a fulfilling, sheltering relationship with Tom, their father; decent success both as a novelist and as a translator of Danielle Westerman, a French intellectual and feminist; and a rich circle of female friends. In other words, a woman accustomed to the "useful monotony of happiness" until her eldest daughter, Norah, disappears, ending up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a cardboard sign reading "GOODNESS" on her chest. A bright university student, almost soldierly in her sense of responsibility, Norah falls through the cracks of reality, and it seems that nothing can bring her back.
"Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head," says Reta. "It takes all your cunning just to hang onto it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life." And so, awash in grief, Reta moves into that different life, trying to understand what has broken Norah and rendered her silent. In her attempt to penetrate that mystery, Reta begins to project her own inner life onto the screen of her 19-year-old daughter. What unspools is Reta's rage against the narrative of female deprivation: "But we've come so far; that's the thinking ... Well, no, we've arrived at the new millennium and we haven't 'arrived' at all. We've been sent over to the side pocket of the snooker table and been made to disappear." In her sorrow, Reta assumes that Norah "half knows the big female secret of wanting and not getting" and suspects that for her there is "goodness but not greatness."
With her anger ignited, Reta becomes especially alert to women's inability to name and take what they want in this world, how in their goodness and their acquiescence they are rendered invisible. "We're too soft in our tissues ... We are too kind, too willing - too unwilling too - reaching out blindly with a grasping hand but not knowing how to ask for what we don't even know we want."
Both Reta's grief and her anger, however articulate, are expressed silently, in interior monologues, or anonymously. "My heart is broken," she writes on a chalkboard in a public washroom. In a series of brilliantly acidic "bean counting" letters - albeit unsent - to a number of authors and members of the media, she connects the dots between their marginalization of women and Norah's "project of self-extinction." Reta charges one writer with making his female readers serve "an apprenticeship in self-denigration" by identifying the long "testicular hit list of literary big cats" - John Updike, Tom Wolfe, et al - and failing to mention a single female author.
And in telling the tale of self-denigration, Shields demonstrates a sly, knowing humour. Take the story of Gwen, a woman so anxious to satisfy her unfaithful husband, who had complained in one sour moment that her navel "smelled 'off,'" that she had a plastic surgeon close it. Years later, regretting her navel-less state and the erasure of her "primal mark" of connection to her mother, Gwen is looking into navel reconstruction.
When Reta retreats to the sustaining comfort of writing her own parallel novel, the reader hears Shields' own joy in the process: "This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can't stop doing it." Shields' brilliance lies in her ability to ground Reta not just in her creative life, but in the buoyant company of her two younger daughters, in her rich conversation with female friends and in her enduring partnership with Tom. Shields writes knowingly about desire - "the self-forgetfulness that good sex requires, the wanting and then the retreat from want" - and about deep attachment in a mature relationship. "We are two people in a snapshot, but with a little cropping we could exist on our own. But that's not what we want. Hold the frame still, contain us, the two of us together, that's what we ask for." This life feels real, three-dimensional, thanks to Shields' sure-footedness in fleshing out both Reta's interior world and her connection to others. And ultimately, when redemption comes in the form of goodness itself, it feels real as well, arriving tentatively, without bravado.
Unless, writes Shields, is "a word breathed by the hopeful or by writers of fiction wanting to prise open the crusted world and reveal another plane of being." A provisional word that offers "a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough ... and keeps you from drowning in the presiding arrangements." This novel offers a tunnel into the light, into an alternate plane where the interior voice of an intelligent woman is heard, astringent, tender and clear.
Ask Carol Shields whether she believes, as Joan Didion once said, that the first sentence of a book determines what flows afterwards, and she pauses to consider. "Not really the first sentence," says Shields. "But I have an almost mythic belief in the second sentence, the one which questions, or amplifies the first." Consider, then, the first two sentences of Unless: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life, I've heard people speak of finding themselves, in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I've never understood what they meant."
Cancer is the thread Shields dropped in writing this novel, one she replaced with the estrangement of Norah. From her home in Victoria, where she is once again undergoing chemotherapy, Shields spoke recently of making the shift: "As a writer of fiction, you have to find a way of reimagining your strongest feelings. It's the necessary transformation, or otherwise you'd be writing autobiography. But there is always an arm and a leg of you in there." She pauses. "I would never deny that this book wasn't a moving sidewards of that shock, a shock that the glass can be broken. And yet I don't know why one would be shocked. Everyone has tragic events that interconnect with their lives. I just thought it wouldn't happen. But I have had an extraordinary 3 ½ years. It has given me time to do what I wanted."
In that time, Shields has ridden high on the best-seller lists, with both a biography of Jane Austen and Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told, an anthology of women's essays co-edited with her friend Marjorie Anderson. And in writing Unless, she has had time to pay attention to those questions that have been hovering for years. Above all, says Shields, the primary question has been: "How do you accommodate feminist rage if you love men and have men you love?" A profound question from a woman who calls her marriage to Don Shields her "great good luck," who was determined to portray a happy marriage in Unless out of "sheer obstinacy" because there are few books about happy marriages. "I wanted it to be almost taken for granted, as I think lucky people in happy marriages do take each other for granted."
So, how do you accommodate feminist rage if you have men you love? "At first I thought, 'I can't take this anger on.' But then I thought, 'Yes I can.'" Rereading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, first published in 1928, was "a tremendous consolation. It's so fresh and contemporary, and she is brilliant at pointing out the great injustices. I find it hard to understand why it didn't prompt a whole wave of change. But the truth is, women haven't come far enough, not nearly far enough. Look at the front page of the newspaper: see how absolutely women are shut out. Look at Parliament: women are actually losing ground. Sometimes I wonder: am I the only one bean-counting? But once you start paying attention, you see that we haven't sorted out men and women. It's the biggest problem in the world, and it may take longer to fix than anyone ever thought. Everyone's sick of it, and women are dismayed by their image as agitators. With this book, I felt I could get rid of some of the accumulation of grievances."
And at 66, she is more than aware that her book will provoke anger: "It will enrage people because of the bean-counting." She remains unruffled. "Persistence is the answer. After a certain age you're allowed to say things. It's one of the very few good things about getting older."
Recently, Catherine asked her mother why she hadn't introduced her to Woolf's book earlier. "I suppose I forgot to pass on some of these things," says Shields. "But mothers don't just give reading lists to kids. They have to show them with their own lives what they can do." And show them she has, in what she calls her "many-chaptered life." Raised in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Shields met her future husband, a Canadian grad student in engineering, while studying at Exeter University in England. After marrying Don at 22, she was soon knee-deep in the busy work of mothering young children, a son and four daughters. But early on, she began stealing moments to write. She was, as she has said, "the mother who typed," starting with poetry. Just shy of 30, she won a CBC-sponsored young poets competition. At 40, she published her first novel. Since then, her work has captured just about every award imaginable, and a devoted international following.
Was it a relief for Shields to shift to Reta's voice, after Larry Weller in Larry's Party? "Oh yes," she says. "It's hard to do that male voice. Even though Reta is quite a lot younger, the age jump is easier than the gender jump."And no wonder. This is a woman who has called two-hour lunches with other women a kind of "necessary music" in her life: "The more words we tossed in the air, the closer we felt to the tune of our own lives." One of the great pleasures of interviewing Carol Shields is her curiosity. Ask her a question and she asks you one back. "What's it like being a woman in your office? Why do you read novels?" Generous questions, with her eyes focused straight at you, eyebrows raised intently. Ask her a question, and you're struck by the time she takes to consider her answer.
How is she feeling? "I have been in failing health, as they say in Jane Austen, but I've been luckier than many. I knew from the beginning that this cancer was bad news, and I've had time I hadn't expected. For the moment I'm enjoying the sunshine and just being here."
Does she believe in God? "No. Human goodness is the only thing I believe in. We hear so much about evil from George Bush, but I don't believe that good and evil are the opposites of each other. That's a very old-fashioned paradigm that we were handed. I think that evil is the occasional breakdown of goodness, a very occasional rupture. To me, it seems astonishing that people are as good as they are: that's the surprising thing. When I think of the aid workers in Afghanistan, why would they do it? They're not going to achieve any fame or recognition. Why would people send anonymous donations for flood victims? I have felt inundated with the goodness of other people in the last few years, so much exceptional goodness flowing toward me in my illness, and it has kept me alive. Long letters from strangers: why would they bother? It's a lot of work to write a letter. But I do feel this sense of goodness is part of our human conversation - the biggest part of it."
Maclean's April 15, 2002