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February 1, 2011

Canada Reads 2011: Unless by Carol Shields

UK edition of Unless

I was thrilled when Carol Shields’ novel Unless made the cut for Canada Reads 2011, but also disheartened, anticipating how inappropriate a forum Canada Reads is for a novel as complex as this one. Anticipating also how easily this novel could be glossed over, dismissed in the name of Survivor-style competition. I passionately hope the debates will turn out to be otherwise, and to do my part towards this end, I wanted to add my own voice to the conversation. So this past weekend, I re-read Unless for perhaps the seventh or eighth time since I read it first in 2003. (April 20th, 2003, according to my note on the inside cover. Which points out also that I was residing on Silverdale Road in Nottingham at the time, the reason for my UK edition.)

I cannot remember what it was to first encounter Unless. I only know that I’ve reread it annually for at least the last five years, and that each time has added a whole new level of understanding to my reading experience. (Oddly, I’d normally say that re-reading a book “uncovers” meaning, but it feels different with Unless, as though the reading experiences were more cumulative. Though I suppose each uncovering is an addition as well, but a subtraction of went before is implied [detritus tossed into a pile] and that isn’t what I mean here).

I can tell what I’ve zeroed in on in previous readings, based upon the marginalia of past selves:  that the novel is a tongue-in-cheek primer on how to write a Carol Shields novel (self-referential to the point where her protagonist’s novel begins, “Alicia was not as happy as she deserved to be” vs. the first sentence(s) of Shields’ first novel, which is, “Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”) and in fact, a very useful resource in that respect. I’ve noted the novel’s fragmented structure, and that one chapter was previously published as a short story. I’ve noted its themes of motherhood and female friendship, and the steadfast relationship between Reta Winters and her husband Tom, who had sex on the night they met. That at some point Reta remarks about annoyingly obtuse novels with stupid tricks like a chair in every chapter, but that there is (very nearly?) a chair in every chapter here, very specific chairs, all situated around the idea of the sitting woman. That I still don’t understand how the chapter titles relate to the chapters in question, or what the little words (words I use all the time) in fact mean, and I could think on them forever. I noticed lines about a woman’s place, about Women’s place– Mrs. as diminutive, about wanting and not having, about rage and stamping that lady-sized foot, and an exclusion from greatness. And I can identify with Norah’s overwhelming sense of being lost in the world: “And language. Well, you know. And branches of languages and dead languages and forgotten dead languages.” The sheer ungraspability of all of it.

It’s not difficult to imagine the criticisms that will be launched against Unless in the Canada Reads debates. (I say all this very hopefully. That fate will conspire to prove me wrong and that this book, no doubt the most interesting and definitely most essential of the lot, will prove to be the dark horse of the race. Fingers crossed. There’s even a man championing it, so the odds are better than they would have been.) Its plotlessness. The weakness of the main storyline, which is apparent to me at times (and I do get bogged down in the geographical details of Bloor and Bathurst, that if Norah is on the corner, than she cannot be near the subway entrance, which is further up the street and safely housed in Bathurst station, but anyway…).

That Reta Winters has a chip on her shoulder, so said a commenter on the CBC online forum a while back. Readers will complain that they could barely get through it (to which I will want to respond with a hardcover book to the head, because such a failure is your problem, not the book’s! Read better.) Someone will call this a woman’s novel (and forgive me, more parenthesis, but although I do believe that there are such things as woman’s novels, I don’t think the label is a good enough reason for a man not to bother to read one).

Canadian edition of Unless

The complexity of the novel became especially clear to me a reading or two ago, that although this is a feminist novel and Reta’s feminist ideas were feeding something within me, that the novel’s solution is not so simple. This time around, I underlined a part about Reta’s projection of her own experience– onto her daughter, her friends, her mother-in-law, the woman who lived in her house the sixties. The important thing to understand when reading Unless and finding Reta Winters somewhat tedious is that Shields has her protagonist turn out to be wrong– what a brave thing for a novelist to do. Reta’s daughter has not taken to the streets because she has been excluded from greatness, the woman who lived in her house was not a matronly housewife called Lillian but a university grad called Crystal, Reta’s mother-in-law is not suffering from much more than loneliness and some of this is Reta’s own doing.

Part of the problem with Reta, and with women, is of their own making. We see this in the conversations Reta has with her friends in which they’re eternally interrupting one another and therefore always just missing the point. In which Reta would sooner make up narratives than probe the ones in her own life. In which too many conclusions are being jumped to, not enough questions being asked. Even simple questions, like, “Tell me all about yourself, Lois.” We’re too busy talking and not doing enough listening, so that we’re missing obvious things. The big ideas are getting away from us.

And yet. Reta Winters wasn’t all wrong. That women appear to excluded from greatness was not the cause of her daughter’s breakdown, but it doesn’t change the fact that women are. The bean-counting, as Reta goes through magazine contributers’ lists and noticing glaring disparity. When she cites literary conversations in which nary a woman is mentioned, as though a woman has never written a book (“Now the nineteenth century. There were some interesting women writers then”). Books like The Ingenuity Gap (which has a cameo in Unless) and Outliers, which restructure the universe so not to include women all. Oh, how the three boys in my graduate English courses always owned the conversation, how a book like Moore’s February is dismissed as “teary hormonal paste, how The Walrus is a lad’s mag, but we have to pretend it’s general interest.

Reta is “partly-right and partly-wrong”, as was her husband Tom who’d theorized that their daughter was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Such doubleness being the revelation of Unless, that the world is so complex that two things can exist at once, and in fact, as Reta says earlier on in the book, “doubleness clarifie[s] the world.” That we are not so simple as us vs. them, men vs. the feminists. That instead of “versus”, we have words like unless, nevertheless, next, hence, so etc. Words not to set up binaries, but to connect ideas in an intricate fashion.

This time around, I also noticed Reta’s point that what she’s writing isn’t written on her word processor, but on her consciousness, and how this explains the structure of the book. How I continue to see each chapter as a meditation, Reta revisiting her situation, attempting to get close to the heart of the matter, but missing that elusive something every time (and sometimes most deliberately). I noticed the palpability of her sadness her in a way I don’t remember doing so before, the explosion of, “My heart is broken”. The book’s conflation of book narrative and life narrative– I love this. I thought about “Goodness” in opposition to “God” instead of “Greatness”, the polite curse of ladies, and what that might mean.

See, I dare you to talk about this book articulately in the space of three hour-long debates. I don’t know if it’s even possible, or if I’ll even be able to bear listening and what might be said against this book I hold so close to my heart. But I also dare you to find a book in the line-up with anywhere near the same richness, and I have a feeling you’d only come up short. So that if Unless can’t win Canada Reads 2011, then I’m not sure that any other book should.

6 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2011: Unless by Carol Shields”

  1. Gillian says:

    exactly. on so many points.

  2. On this recommendation I shall make Unless my subway read for the next week. [I first read it on the subway in 2003 but have gone back to it only for research, not to enjoy.]

  3. Hannah says:

    This is beautiful.
    Exactly.

    Thanks for this. It made my morning.

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