“Up to the wall”: Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries

stonediariesI don’t really understand why I didn’t like The Stone Diaries this time. Did I reread it at the wrong moment for me, somehow? I admired lots of pieces of it as I was reading, but my overall experience of it was that it was too miscellaneous: that it incorporated too many elements that ended up feeling random, that as a novel it felt piecemeal instead of designed. That may in fact have been Shields’s concept, since I think a lot of what the novel is about is how difficult it is to capture “a life” — even if you are the one living it. Not only is Daisy’s own story shot through with unease about her identity, but the reflections we get about her from other people show misunderstandings, misinterpretations, but also readings of her — theories, as one section of the novel calls them — that might well be as accurate as her own theory of herself.

Already, as I try to write about the novel, it starts to feel more interesting than it did while I was reading it. Is that a problem, if it’s that kind of a book, a book that is driven forward more by a concept than by the kind of momentum that comes from following a strong narrative of a more old-fashioned kind? The Stone Diaries is another in the ‘soup-to-nuts’ genre: I was reminded, reading it, of A God in Ruins as well as of My Real Children. By the end — despite its greater fragmentation — it has something of the same inevitable poignancy: a life lived, a life worn out, a life ending, ended. “Something has occurred to her,” thinks Daisy’s daughter Alice at the end of one of her visits to her fading mother:

something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we’re still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.

The Stone Diaries does give us a strong sense of that “daily music” of life, but it also divides it into acts and self-consciously jangles those “single things” in our ears right up to its own last minute — most of all, in fact, during those final pages. I think it might be that self-consciousness, actually, that kept me aloof from the book as a whole, even though I paused frequently to retrace sentences I particularly liked.

I feel as if my business with The Stone Diaries is unfinished: perhaps some of my own current restlessness put me at odds with it. At any rate, I have at least reread it now, so that’s one more in my review of Shields’ oeuvre as I prepare to teach Unless again this fall.

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