By the end of a sunny Monday earlier this month, Winnipeg novelist Carol SHIELDS had been put through the wringer. She had gingerly made her way through a scraggly hedge and leant against a tree to accommodate a magazine photographer. ("Make sure you show the manicure," she teased him, flashing russet-colored nails. "It's a rare thing.") She had been interviewed twice, once for print and once for TV, fielding questions about her new novel, Larry's Party. From her office at the University of Winnipeg, where she is chancellor, she had called ahead to a local Italian restaurant to pre-order a 6 p.m. meal for herself, husband Don and a guest. The dinner would be quick because she had to get to a 7:30 launch at the city's handsome superstore, McNally Robinson. And, oh yes, she had picked up a new green dress before heading home for a late afternoon photo shoot, this one for People magazine. Although Shields sailed through it all with a mixture of military precision and good humor, she says it takes its toll. "Just listening to yourself blathering on induces a certain amount of self-loathing," admits the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, 62, who is limiting promotion of her new book to two months. "I simply can't do that for a prolonged period. I have to get home between stops."
Home for the soft-spoken author is a highrise apartment that overlooks the winding Assiniboine River. The spacious, light-filled living room is filled with reminders of some of the 10 works of fiction she has created since her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in 1976. Over the mantlepiece is a print called The Orange Fish, which figures in the title story of her 1989 short-story collection. Below the print is a snapshot showing three of her five children (who range in age from 29 to 39) and her six grandchildren; her best-selling 1993 novel, The Stone Diaries, contained real-life photos of some of those same family members in Shields's fictional biography of her heroine, Daisy Goodwill.
The Stone Diaries was the book that propelled Shields into the book-selling stratosphere. It appeared on all the major best-seller lists, and won her a sheaf of awards, including the Governor General's Literary Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a Booker nomination. The book sold more than a million English-language copies worldwide, paving the way for reprinting new editions of her previous works. It also made film-makers sit up and take notice: Shields's 1987 book, Swann: A Mystery, became a feature film in 1996, and two other adaptations - one of The Republic of Love (1992) and another of The Stone Diaries - are currently in the works. Winnipeg film-maker Bruce Duggan, one of the producers of The Republic of Love, says that Shields's recent fame helped open doors when he went looking for financing for the movie. "When we started we didn't exactly get a thrilled reaction when we'd say it's a love story set in Winnipeg by a Canadian writer," he recalls. "But now, when we say it's a love story by Carol Shields, people are interested."
As Shields unveils Larry's Party, readers are more than just interested - they are plunking down $31 to buy the book in huge numbers. In Winnipeg, more than 900 people turned up at the home-town launch for Larry's Party on Sept 8, snapping up 350 copies, a record one-day sale for a single title at McNally Robinson. Within four days of the book's official Canadian release on Sept. 13, Random House went back to its printers to supplement its initial run of 50,000 hardcover copies. And all this before Shields had done any interviews with national media outlets. Meanwhile, the book has been selling briskly in Britain since its August launch (although it did not make this year's Booker Prize shortlist). And Shields has already concluded the first leg of a 10-city American promotional tour.
It's an axiom of the book industry that women read more fiction than men. But Larry's Party's may attract more male readers than usual, because Shields has set out to explore "what it's like to be an ordinary, middle-aged guy at the end of the century," as she puts it. The idea germinated with a lunch discussion among Shields's women friends about how the very definition of masculinity has changed dramatically as women's expectations of men have changed. And the story evolved as she canvassed male friends and family about their experience. "Of course," she recalls, "nearly every one of them said, 'But I'm not a typical guy.' " Don Shields, the author's husband of 40 years and the dean of engineering at the University of Manitoba, comments drolly on the curiosity he's encountered about his wife's book: "Every man born between 1948 and 1952 has spoken to me lately."
The novel covers a 20-year span in Larry Weller's life, between ages 26 and 46 - "when the bedrock of a life is laid down," says Shields. The author tracks her character through two marriages and divorces, fatherhood, career changes, sexual ecstasy and impotence, illness and fleeting periods of contentment. The book is set during a social era, 1977 to the present, when gender roles have never been more confused. "I wanted to be very careful about not presenting Larry as a buffoon," Shields recalls. "Something has happened to the male image. You can't turn on the TV without seeing men mocked or portrayed as idiots - the way women were in the 1950s, with all those jokes about the mother-in-law or the lady driver or the dumb secretary."
Larry is not a buffoon, though he may seem inordinately good-natured and almost passive to some readers. Born into a loving but emotionally repressed working-class family, Larry grows up to be a mediocre student; he is also painfully inarticulate and beset by the usual sexual anxieties. He more or less drifts into a job as a floral designer. But a honeymoon visit to England and the famous Hampton Court maze leaves him with a passion for the green-leafed labyrinths, "their teasing treachery and promise of reward." His obsession plays a part in breaking up his first marriage and indirectly leads him to a second wife.
Shields also has a fondness for mazes, and says it was "pure pleasure" to research the arcane details of their history and designs. In a stroke of literary artfulness, Shields uses the maze - how its blind pathways and dead ends force people to retrace their steps, how it offers the hope of finding the one true path - as an extended metaphor for Larry's journey through life. But the cleverness of the device does not reduce the vitality of the characters within it. Larry remains endearing, not because of his eccentric occupation, but because he is so intent on understanding himself. Unsettled at 40, he cannot even take his own suffering too seriously. He cringes at the words " 'midlife crisis' or 'male menopause,' those trumped-up diseases of trite and trivial contemporary man."
Larry may seem just another of "those barbecuers, those volunteer firemen, those wearers of muscle shirts" who are boringly predictable. But his life is touched by randomness and luck. Shields insists that her own career is very much the product of chance. "I drifted into writing fiction," she says. "I certainly never set out with a plan for a career path. With five children, I was just too busy." Born and raised in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Shields was an exchange student in England when she met her husband, a Manitoban there on a scholarship. In 1957 they married and moved to Canada, living in several cities before settling in Winnipeg in 1980.
Shields wrote sporadically during most of the 1960s and '70s while she raised one son and four daughters. "I used to have about one hour a day, and my first novels were very short," she recalls. Daughter Catherine, a librarian who collaborated with her mother on a 1995 play, Fashion Power Guilt and the Charity of Families, recalls that her mother always wrote. "On long family car trips, she would always be scribbling in a little notebook, with this abstracted look on her face," she says. "We just thought all Moms did that." Shields's early novels - Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman, published between 1976 and '82 - are gently satirical chronicles of the tensions in middle-class families. While the author continues to mine the same territory, she has become far more stylistically experimental in her recent books.
Shields still works at her writing almost every day, amid her duties as chancellor and her family obligations. She thinks that most novels and movies ignore the pre-eminence of work in peoples' lives. "When I came out of that movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, I was in a rage, just furious," she recalls. "Absolutely no one in that film had a job. People's work lives are written out of most novels, too, and considering how much time they spend working, it's curious."
Shields has served on the board of the Canada Council and for many years taught English and creative writing. She professes optimism about the future of fiction in Canada, pointing to the phenomenal amount of attention domestic novels are getting abroad. "Every time I'm in Europe," she says, "interviewers ask me to explain my theory on the explosion of writing in Canada." According to fellow Winnipeg writer Jake MacDonald, Shields takes a personal interest in nurturing younger talent. "Carol and her husband are like the royalty of Winnipeg book circles," he says. "They always make sure that you get invited to dinner, and they're unfailingly genial and gracious."
That generosity of spirit seems to infuse her fictional worlds, too. On balance, the universe of Larry's Party is benevolent: terrible things may happen, but there is also the redemption of love and friendship, the consolation of words and memory. People can be blindsided by happiness: Larry recalls standing on a Winnipeg street corner 20 year earlier, possessed by a sudden feeling of well-being. "Love was waiting for him. Transformation. Goodness. Work. Understanding. The enchantment and liberation of words . . . All he had to do was stand still and allow it to happen."
In fact, while acknowledging that much fiction chronicles the prevalence of evil, Shields believes it is just as interesting to explore why its opposite endures. "I believe in goodness," she says. "I'm amazed by the amount of goodness in the world. And I think that makes me a very unfashionable writer." She notes with humor that even the English language seems to conspire against her. "I had my students get out their dictionaries and thesauruses and look up all the names for happiness and sadness," she recounts. "And do you know, the English language is much richer in the language of despair than joy. There's only a handful of words for happiness, and they tend to sound glib or even silly."
With Larry's Party, Carol Shields proves that there is a language for happiness that is original and engaging. And like all her fictional works - replete with the significance of small lives and small ceremonies - it is a resounding confirmation of the mystery of the ordinary.
Maclean's September 29, 1997