Carol Shields, Unless

A recent talk with a good friend sent me back to my bookshelf to revisit Carol Shields’s Unless, which I remembered having found not wholly convincing. My reaction on this re-reading was the same, though the novelistic intelligence evident throughout engaged me more fully this time. My problem here is the opposite of my complaint about ‘chick lit’ (absence of ideas): Shields’s novel is too conspicuously driven by an idea, specifically an idea about the way women are rendered trivial, condemned (as the narrator Reta says in one of her interspersed letters) to a “solitary state of non-belonging.” The novel does not have a feminist sub-text: it is, both artfully and overtly, a feminist novel. Reta confronts her “smarmy” New York editor about her next novel featuring her characters Roman and Alicia–bound, on her initial conception, for marriage, but now redirected by her epiphanic realization that Alicia must be granted her singleness:

“I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”
“It’s because she’s a woman.”
“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you–“
“But it is the issue.”
“. . . A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”
“Because she’s a woman.”
“Not at all, not at all.”
“Because she’s a woman.”

The reflexivity of this moment is palpable: can we take Reta herself–who calms herself through housekeeping, who cooks lasagna, who mothers her children–seriously as a moral fulcrum? Can her story offer a social critique that reaches beyond the personal? Or, perhaps, should we want it to, as the novel, even as it chafes against cliches about women novelists being “miniaturists of feeling” (from another of Reta’s letters), refuses to reach out and claim its larger issues in larger ways? Doesn’t Shields, in avoiding bolder confrontation with the global and ideological issues that lurk around the edges of her plot (admittedly, as they typically lurk around the edges of our lives), allow her novel to settle into something like comfortable domestic realism? The woman in a burka who sets herself alight and thus precipitates Norah’s (and, in turn, Reta’s) crisis: surely in a post-9/11 novel to choose such an incident to stand for women’s desperation is no accident, but no more is made of her than that, a symbol–and an occasion for Norah’s and Reta’s meditations on goodness, rather a reductive and objectifying gesture, and one that conflates Reta’s rather abstruse complaints (women writers and thinkers are undervalued in the history of literature and philosophy!) with the truly devastating limitations on personal freedom, individualism, and wellbeing we can imagine would motivate a Muslim woman to self-immolation.

And yet at the same time as I felt Shields allowed some of the (potential) substance of the novel to become insubstantial, I felt irritated at the novel’s didacticism on its main theme, and inclined to quarrel with its insistence that despite apparent gains, women continue to exist on the margins of power and discourse. “Not so,” I kept wanting to interject, and especially when the tone and art of the novel seemed to suffer from Shields’s polemical intent. “I need to speak further about this problem of women,” Reta begins one chapter, “how they are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements.” Is my resistance to these persistent iterations the result of a generational difference? Wishful thinking, or ignorance? Whatever its cause, it distanced me from the novel.

And yet (again), there are moments and expressions in the novel that sparked poignant recognition in me, that made me reach for my notebook to jot them down for later reference. (“This is why I read novels,” Reta reflects: “so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.”) And Norah’s story, though ostensibly the occasion for Reta’s narrative rather than a “fulcrum” in its own right, strikes me as a creative and appropriate working out of George Eliot’s line about the “roar on the other side of silence” that Shields takes as her epigraph. If the novel irritated and frustrated me at times, I think it was because I wanted a different kind of book, one that gave me these people and their stories in more Eliot-like depth, with more picture and less diagram. But I’m aware, too, because the novel is also about novels and what we want from them and how we theorize and criticism them, that Shields is resisting that kind of book and offering this one instead, and I respect and appreciate her invitation to her readers to think as well as to feel.

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