Friday, June 17, 2016

Unless, by Carol Shields

Carol Shields's novel Unless is more satisfying as an expose of gender imbalance than as a story.  We meet Reta Winters, a writer in her forties - wife, mother, friend, indispensable translator for a feminist of a previous generation - who in the midst of all these roles finds her orderly life derailed by the disappearance then estrangement of her oldest daughter. 

A mother with daughters is necessarily aware of how women are dismissed in the cultural world to which we contribute as second-class citizens. One of the novel's threads is a series of letters Reta composes to academics and critics whose lists of literary greats virtually exclude women. She challenges their omissions, and increasingly pours out her concerns for how this effacement must affect her daughters, who look at this cultural elite without seeing their own reflections anywhere.

Every chapter title is an adverb or conjunction: Nevertheless; Instead; So. For me these were not guideposts - the chapters all have a similar tone. But in the chapter Unless, Shields says this:
"Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior 'discourse,' but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they're just so much narrative crumble...
"Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless - that's the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It's always there, or else not there."

Embedded in Shields's novel is Reta's, wherein we observe our protagonist's work on the sequel to a well-regarded debut. She anticipates the irritation of readers (myself included!) who wish writers could stretch a little further than writing novels about novelists, or giving the protagonist their own name (at least she doesn't do that), by riffing on the complexities of being a writer, and how those give Shields leverage to reveal the creative process. 

But the story is about Norah, nineteen, who has abruptly dropped out of college, left her live-in boyfriend, and taken up residence on a street corner, holding a sign saying Goodness. She does not communicate, and interacts as little as possible with passers-by, who might add a coin to her cup, or with the staff at the homeless shelter where she spends her nights. Some time after Norah's disappearance, one of Reta's friends sees her on her corner and alerts the family. She will not be budged. Each parent, and her sisters, visit her regularly, leaving warm clothes, food and money, hoping but doubting that she will use their offerings. And her silent vigil becomes the center of her family, disrupting joy, undermining confidence, breaking their hearts.

Reta's "light comic novel" can't sustain that tone - we see her struggle with the choices of her protagonist - a character who at the outset seemed superficial develops depth, doubts her plans, and ultimately makes her home in a larger harder world than the one where she began. Is Shields framing a commentary on how Norah's silence has a gravity that pulls those nearby into her force-field? Norah has power, which she wields by aspiring to have none. Is Shields saying to the crusty old male cultural milieu: "You have silenced us - but see how elemental we are? Our silence overwhelms your noise."-? For a book in which not a lot happens, Unless is a provocative read.