Monday, March 7, 2011

Carol Shields' Unless

Carol Shields' Unless

Borrowed Marilyn's copy of Carol Shield's Unless. Meant to read it before Q's Canada Reads book-of-the-decade competition, but alas, too many review assignments (and research and editing contracts). But I turned away from the CBC competition, not liking the way arguing and competing and dissing each other reduces all, the books, the writers, and the defenders. It seems, by turning art into a popularity contest to be determined by strategic voting that serious writing--using narrative, character, suspense, emotion to tell an important story--is no longer the focus, in the quest for that elusive "younger demographic." [Remember the olden days when the goal was reaching out, to help that "younger demographic" become more fully developed contributing adults?] I am not a fan of irony or satire as I feel they reduce us as human beings, relying on one emotion--smugness--that "I know something you don't know" tongue-sticking out schoolyard stance. But, I will read that winning title, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis, eventually.

Unless: I really enjoyed Unless, almost the only Carol Shields title I had not read. The story of a mother, Reta Winters, also a writer, worried sick because her eldest daughter Norah has dropped out of university, has left her boyfriend, is living in a homeless shelter, and sits alone on a Toronto street corner with a sign saying Goodness hanging around her neck. I was watching for any hints of an unreliable narrator. Do we really believe Reta Winters or not? Do we believe that such a good marriage and happy life in suburbia exists? I guess we want to, the way we want to believe in utopia, and the way some people believe in heaven, and others in happily ever after. But in Reta, Carol Shields seems to be seriously tackling the subject of how can a happy woman who seemingly has everything still not be content?

Shields uses characters to represent different power positions within society. Danielle Westerman, the writer Reta translates, by pointing out how women may be permitted goodness but never greatness, speaks the truth about a still unequal society. Has Norah come to the same conclusion? Has Reta? Based on her studies, her relationship with Danielle, and her experience of Norah's tragic failure to launch? No matter how good she was as a parent, the unthinkable happened, causing her to despair. No matter how good she is as a translator, her fiction is considered trivial. Is it any wonder that some, like Norah, choose instead to withdraw into passivity as a reaction to striving and being denied? Like Danielle, hiding in academia? Like Reta, refusing marriage yet taking her husband's name? I'm afraid this idea of withdrawal hits a bit too close to home for me. Who wants to be fighting all the time, defending one self, warding off usurpers and back-stabbers? Why not just let it go and retreat, do what you do best and damn the rest? Who needs to eat anyway?

The plot of Unless consists of Reta documenting how the parents, sisters, and others attempt to deconstruct what led Norah to that mute corner. Along the way we are entertained with the horrible disrespectful way we talk to [at] each other. The way we use retail therapy to comfort ourselves when we feel powerless. The way we can share a table but never even wonder about the inner life of another. The way we feel inadequate because we cannot explain abstractions such as the theory of relativity or the theory of goodness. The way we believe, as Tom, the doctor insists, that if the trauma can be identified, it can be addressed. The way the plot suggests that actions are more important than words or rationalizations.

Like Carol Shields always does, Unless forces us to look into mirrors, and, if we dare, to contemplate.

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