Some books of short stories, such as Joyce's Dubliners or Hemingway's In Our Time, are patently organized around a unifying subject or mood. Other collections simply gather under one set of covers whatever their authors have been writing since the last time their works were similarly bound together. Carol Shields' Dressing Up for the Carnival (Viking; 210 pages; $23.95), her third book of tales, is of the latter, grab-bag variety, offering 22 pieces, almost all of them culled from previous publications. And yet the result is not as random or eclectic as might be anticipated. Shields, whose novel The Stone Diaries won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, displays in all her writing, long or short, a consistently whimsical ruefulness toward her characters and the dilemmas they face, some of which, in this collection, are engagingly bizarre.
In Weather, for example, a middle-aged couple must cope with the aftereffects of a strike by the National Association of Meteorologists. Not only have forecasts ceased, but so, in a sense, has the weather itself, leaving them, as the wife notes, "stuck in a bland width of grayness with day after day of neither heat nor cold." In Windows another couple, both painters, decide to board up their house, depriving themselves of indoor access to natural light, to protest the government's new window tax. Reportage offers a breezily journalistic account of how local residents react when a Roman arena is improbably excavated in their area of Manitoba.
In Absence a woman sits down at her typewriter to "create a story that possessed a granddaughter, a Boston fern, a golden apple, and a small blue cradle," only to discover that one of the keys, "a vowel, the very letter that attaches to the hungry self," won't work. The story about this deprivation unspools like a Mobius strip, since it too is told without the use of the letter i.
Not all Shields' premises are as playful. Dying for Love presents capsule accounts of three women who have been pushed by failed romances to the ledge of suicide. All pull back in time, the third one after experiencing a mild epiphany: "She is a woman whose life is crowded with not-unpleasant errands and with the entrapment of fragrant, familiar, and sometimes enchanting items, all of which possess a reassuring, measurable weight and volume." The story concludes: "Not that this is much of a handrail to hang on to--she knows that, and so do I--but it is at least continuous, solid, reliable as narrative in its turnings and better than no handrail at all."
The title story, Dressing Up for the Carnival, opens the book by showing the people of an imagined town "putting on their costumes," that is, getting dressed for another day in their lives. The final story is called Dressing Down and reverses the procedure of donning clothes for the sake of identity. A man remembers his grandfather, a respectable YMCA director who spent every July at a nudist camp that he established on the shore of a nearby lake. His wife, the narrator's grandmother, strongly disapproves: "Naturism was not her nature. Nudity was the cross she bore." Shields portrays the quarrel between these two as gently comic but also deeply earnest, a disagreement unresolved in life or death. This story, like the rest in this book, suggests the large consequences of small events.
--By Paul Gray