I bought this book as a Christmas gift for someone, attracted to it by its recent accolade of competing on Canada Reads. I have never before read anything by Carol Shields, and when I buy books that I haven't read before with the intention of giving them to other people, I tend to read them myself first. So I embarked upon Unless not knowing all that much about it, knowing only that it had won a poll entitling it to a spot in a national debate, only that it was some sort of book about a mother in a city near Toronto with a daughter who lives on a street corner in pursuit of "goodness." And I ended up falling in love with Carol Shields' writing, with the way she describes people and feelings and what matters to us, but I didn't fall in love with Unless.
I seem to be in the habit of reading meta-fictional fiction lately. Books about writers, books about writers writing. Writing about writing. Reta Winters is a moderately successful writer and translator, content in how she has managed to fuse domestic life with her own goals, except, of course, for what has happened with her nineteen-year-old daughter, Norah. As Unless unspools, Reta reflects on her writing, on how it has shaped her, on how writing shapes others, and especially on the role of women in writing. Later chapters begin with an unsent letter Reta has composed to an author or editor, in which she questions why a book or magazine article cited so many influential male authors and no female authors. Meanwhile, Reta alternates between discussing her life, including the slow, simmering story of how and why Norah came to live on a street corner, and discussing with us her plans for a sequel to her novel, a sequel in which she realizes the emancipation of her female narrator.
Rather than confront the whys and wherefores of Norah's societal estrangement directly, Shields has Reta approach the issue sideways. It is as if Reta herself cannot bear to interfere directly; heeding the advice of many, she waits and sees how long Norah can continue this self-imposed homelessness. Instead, she explores what she slowly comes to believe is the reason Norah has chosen to search for goodness on the street corner. She confronts the gender divide in our society, and most notably in how it affects her as a mother and a writer.
Reta, and through her, Shields, are right about this, of course. This week I have been following the #MooreandMe trend on Twitter, started by a feminist blogger outraged by insensitive comments made by Michael Moore regarding the allegations against Julian Assange that he raped two women. Moore and Keith Olbermann's initial reactions to this protest movement, not to mention all the trolls on Twitter, made a point abundantly clear, if you weren't already aware of it: this is still a grossly unequal world. Despite our nominally-democratic, Charter-enshrined (in Canada) society, gender is still a minefield and a battleground.
Shields takes an interesting way of reminding us of this fact, a way that is simultaneously seductively unique yet frustratingly heavy-handed. I like Reta, both as a person and as a narrator. I like all of the Winters: Tom, Norah, Natalie, Christine, Lois. I even like the overbearing, interrupting Arthur Springer—he does mean well, even if he is an example of a man who has been educated by society with certain notions of power, gender, and what readers want. I like them, because Shields makes these characters people. They have flaws, but they try hard. There are no moustache-twirling villains here, nor are there golden messiahs. At the same time, Shields avoids making any of her main characters a subject of spectacle. I think there is a tendency to hype literary fiction that focuses on the spectacular character, the crack addict or the prostitute, the child soldier or the homeless mother. Unless, among all its other charms, brings us ordinary people who, for the most part, do not have any serious problems with their lives. And it makes me care about them, invest three hundred pages in them. That's pretty cool.
Yet I cannot ignore that heavy-handed approach Shields takes to these issues of gender inequity. Maybe it's because I am a man, but there is something alienating it, a fatalistic tone to Reta's melancholic proclamations:
Because Tom is a man, because I love him dearly, I haven't told him what I believe: that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lies has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang. That's the problem.
"Because Tom is a man…," because he is outside, he is Other, he can never really comprehend. And I say this not to invoke the rather dim lament of "Oh noes, not feminism! What about the poor mens?!" I just have a difficult time accepting or even considering the idea that there are certain mentalities, certain perspectives, forever inaccessible to me by dint of, as Reta puts it, a seemingly random chromosome determinate. I don't know if that is the case. As a writer I certainly hope not; as a reader I strive my best to access that inaccessible perspective through the voices of narrators like Reta Winters.
Of course, if you have read the book, you might recall the paragraph that immediately follows the one I quoted above. You might, thus, be preparing to call me out, for I have done the questionable thing of taking a passage out of context. I really do like the passage above, as a piece of writing, even if I find the sentiment rather extreme. So, to correct my temporary omission, I will mention that Shields acknowledges her hyperbole:
This cry is overstated; I'm an editor, after all, and recognize purple ink when I see it. The sentiment is excessive, blowsy, loose, womanish. But I am willing to blurt it all out, if only to myself. Blurting is a form of bravery. I'm just catching on to that fact. Arriving late, as always.
Additionally, it is clear that Shields' intention is never to alienate nor even to preach. Danielle Westerman is a foil to Reta, a woman whose bitter old age has metamorphosed her feminism into a general kind of misanthropy. It's her class-conscious, power-conflict sentiments that Reta is echoing, and that is only one view of many that surfaces in Unless.
For despite having a single first-person narrator, Unless carries within it a symphony of multiple voices. Shields manages to convey, through Reta, the opinions and ideas of the other characters, assembling a multi-dimensional view of the story as it centres around Norah.
I am, like with much of this book, ambivalent about Norah and her role. I like that Shields does not pursue the reasons behind Norah's choices directly, because that would have made for a very different type of book, something that would almost be a mystery. Yet I feel a little cheated by the resolution. I feel like the way Shields explains the mystery is careless, because we hear it second-hand through Reta, and Norah remains, as she does for the rest of the book, little more than a name with a sign that says "Goodness" attached to it. That being said, I understand why Shields does it this way, revealing that it is not a careless decision at all. For this is Reta's story, not Norah's, and hence it is important to hear how Reta interprets Norah's actions and Norah's reasons, more important than it is to hear Norah herself discuss them. Thus my ambivalence. I want more than Unless can give, more than it should give. I'm just a greedy reader!
The back cover of my edition has two blurbs, one from The Ottawa Citizen and one from The New York Times Book Review, both so glowing and gushing that I'm a little embarrassed, on the book's behalf, by them. These blurbs are falling over themselves to convey to me, with adjectives and adverbs and exclamation points, how much they love Unless. I won't do that. I try, for one thing, to limit the number and type of adverbs and adjectives I expend on any one book. And I fast approach my quota. Moreover, I obviously do not share these blurbs' sentiments when it comes to this book. I liked Unless, and as my unabated intention to give it as a Christmas present attests, this is a book worth reading. Is it a book Canada should read? Not having read any of its contenders, I will withhold my judgement of that.
So I'm not going to tell you that this is "a signal novel, profound and resonant." Let me be clear in the way only stumbling, awkward prose can be: Unless more than doesn't suck, and it is in fact quite good. It has a simplicity that truly makes it a serious, thoughtful work of art. And it deserves accolades and attention. At the risk of sounding trite, I will conclude with a quotation: "Goodness, not greatness," as Reta echoes Danielle Westerman, is what Unless and Carol Shields achieve.