It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories. It’s throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it. Breathing, waking and sleeping: our lives are steamed and shaped into stories. Knowing that is what keeps me from going insane, and though I don’t like to admit it, sometimes it’s the only thing.
I didn’t love Carol Shields’ Unless the first time I read it. Over time, though, my appreciation for it has grown a lot. It is smart and interesting about abstract literary problems (how we define literary greatness, for instance, or what kinds of stories we consider important), and it’s told in a wry, self-aware voice that invites intimacy but also allows for some distance. It seems to me a novel that wants us to think along with Reta, its narrator, rather than pressuring us to identify with her. Her discoveries — about her life, about her family, about herself — provoke us to discover things about ourselves, partly through discovering how far we agree with her. I enjoy the experience of being with Reta, who is sometimes abrasive, sometimes pedantic or overly insistent, but who is always trying, especially to find the meaning, the story, to make sense of things.
Shields’ first novel, Small Ceremonies, turns out to have a lot in common with Unless. It too has a writer for a narrator, one who through her work is trying to shape lives into stories. Judith is a biographer whose current subject is the Canadian pioneer writer Susanna Moodie. She’s perplexed by Susanna’s character, which she feels she can’t clearly discern through the materials available to her, including Moodie’s own voluminous writings. The problem of figuring out who people are is one unifying theme of the novel: Judith is puzzled, also, by her husband’s lingering opacity, by her childrens’ otherness, by her friends, by herself. Biography seems a natural form for someone so preoccupied with how externals reflect but also conceal internal qualities. But biography also epitomizes the limits we always face in understanding other people. “I can’t quite pin it all down,” she says, speaking in context about the Moodie biography but in a phrase that applies much more widely to her perceptions across the novel.
The plot of Small Ceremonies turns on Judith’s attempts to switch from biography to fiction. Unable to get a novel off the ground, she ends up stealing an idea from another writer (we have to take her word for it that it’s a brilliant idea, fresh and original), only to have “her” idea stolen in turn by her writing instructor after she has abandoned it. I found this plot itself pretty thin; its interest comes from the questions it provokes about literary originality and indebtedness. “Writers can’t stake out territories,” says the writer who persisted where she did not and turned the twice-purloined idea into a successful novel; “one uses what one can find. One takes an idea and brings to it his own individual touch.” Is he right? In a way, he is. “Where did Shakespeare get his plots?” he demands when Judith attacks him, angrily declaring him a “swine.” But these abstract questions prove less important, though (or so I thought), than the moral one: Judith herself is most upset by the dishonesty, the “casual treason,” of her friend and teacher. The situation becomes another opportunity for inquiry into character as defined by external actions, or, looking at it another way, for character to define itself in response to events.
As with most first-person narrators, Judith is the most important character in Small Ceremonies. Like Reta in Unless, she has a lot of rough edges. She’s hasty, blunt, and sometimes mean, as when she scorns her Milton-professor husband’s idea to weave a tapestry conveying the intricate patterning of themes in Paradise Lost. She is not the kind of “likeable” character much-debated (and often dismissed) in recent discussions of the place of anger in women’s fiction: rather, she is flawed in ways that aren’t at all extraordinary. Shields is good at this kind of thing, at creating people and families that are normal enough to bristle with irritation, to turn querulous or defensive, but also to soften into affection, in the familiar emotional oscillation of everyday life. I think Unless is a much more polished and elegant version — the various parts and ideas of Small Ceremonies didn’t feel as well-coordinated, and the language was sometimes overdone in ways I found distracting. This isn’t surprising, of course, as Unless was Shields’ last novel, written almost three decades later than Small Ceremonies.
Something else I found distracting in Small Ceremonies was a brief but virulent attack on Middlemarch that occurs , quite unexpectedly, about half way through. “When I was about fifteen years old,” Judith tells us,
I read a very long and boring novel called Middlemarch. By George Eliot yet. I got it from the public library. (All girls like me who were good at school but suffered from miserable girlhoods were sustained for years on end by the resources of the public libraries of this continent.) Not that Middlemarch offered me much in the way of escape. It offered little but a rambling plot and quartets of moist, dreary, introspective characters, one of whom was accused by the heroine of having ‘spots of commonness.’
The point turns out to be that Judith sees “spots of commonness” in the man who ends up stealing her (stolen) plot. But that doesn’t begin to explain this particularly petulant squib! (It’s also inaccurate — it’s not “the heroine” but the narrator who contemplates Lydgate’s “spots of commonness.”) The degree to which this paragraph threw me off track in my reading is partly idiosyncratic, I realize. It made me fretful for the rest of the novel, though, not just because harumph WRONG!!!, but because it seemed potentially important precisely because it appeared so uncalled for. Is this seemingly gratuitous section actually doing some important intertextual or metafictional work — giving us clues, for instance, about Judith’s own writing or Shields’ own fiction? Is it a deliberate attempt to make Judith look bad? If so, to what ends? I wondered if Judith would come back to Middlemarch later on and reconsider her immaturely dismissive view of it; when she didn’t, I wondered if that passage was there to drive a wedge between Judith and Shields for us — because I can’t believe that Shields, who used the squirrel’s heartbeat passage from Middlemarch as the epigraph for Unless, could ever have seen Eliot’s novel that way. Maybe she did, but that still doesn’t explain why she needed to say so in this way (“moist”? “yet”?) at this point in her own novel. At any rate, I find it easier to forgive Judith for this bad moment than Shields, but it’s true that 1976, when Small Ceremonies was published, was very early days for feminist criticism.