Monday, October 17, 2011

Carol Shields' Larry's Party

I'd read only one Carol Shields novel before recently finishing Larry's Party. Small Ceremonies, her first effort, struck me as blandly middle brow and middle class, and left no residue. Larry's Party had a more appealing tone of vulnerability, though the possibilities it promised were rarely realized. A two decade tour in the life of the eponymous protagonist, the novel achieves Shields' stated wish to honour ordinary lives as they actually play out, notwithstanding the supposed metafictional ploys. James Joyce had the talent to find gold from muddy, subjective banalities, but Larry's Party, like many other novels of "small ceremonies", disintegrated for long stretches, including entire chapters (Larry's Kid; Larry's Threads; Men Called Larry), when the faithful rendering of the daily grind was the aim. The let-down was significant because most of her characters -- especially her female leads and support cast -- were idiosyncratic, lively, occasionally surprising. Larry was another matter. A lifelong dreamer, passive schlub, and befuddled reactive naif, Larry nevertheless stays in his first job for twelve years, is promoted to head honcho, then pursues his passion to become a leading entrepreneur in a career held by twelve others worldwide. The discrepancy was difficult to square up. And the dreaming artist/maze creator link didn't work for me: Larry was presented not only as an imaginative dynamo, but as a persistent, organizational stickler.

There were three serious plot contradictions in the novel, the most important between the first reference to Larry's mother mistakenly mailing away for literature for a Flower School class instead of a Furnace School class to help a bewildered Larry get an idea for his first job, and a later explanation that Larry had always wanted to enroll in that school and work with flowers, even though earlier it was made clear Larry had no particular interest in even observing them, let alone thinking about them.

Several scenes were powerful, their emotional pacing and build-up excellent. I'm thinking here of the events leading to Larry's first divorce, and to the strange death of his mother's mother-in-law.

Two shortcomings ultimately pushed me face first into the overgrown shrubbery. Shields has been praised, in other quarters, for a fearless view into dysfunctional domesticity. Sex and love -- she'd reveal those fireworks in all their glory and disarray. So one begins the chapter entitled Larry's Penis with the hope of transgression, vulgar hilarity, heartbreak, tenderness, anything raw or divine. Instead, we're treated to a belaboured list of euphemisms for the poor appendage -- all played for one-toned schoolyard laughs -- as well as narrative flaccidity. "A few days later he was in her bed, sweetly, plumply, satisfyingly fucked." That's the complete one-sentence story of Larry's first encounter with his eventual first wife.

The second problem came to a head in the last chapter. Without giving away the plot resolution, I'll just say Larry's epiphany was unconvincing, both in its realization and in its build-up from his time with Beth and Charlotte. Any maturation in the separate lives of Larry and Dorrie have no bearing on a believable resurgence in their own present and future as a couple.

Two additional notes: Alex Ramon, in a career rehashing of Shields, praised her attention, detail, and skill with setting. He even concluded that she was the best purveyor of Winnipeg-situated storytelling. This speaks either to the paucity of Winnipeg-centric novelists, or the individual projections of Mr. Ramon. The only references to local detail in Larry's Party are to a new coffee shop, to Winnipeg being the windiest of cities, to an outlying community being upscale, and to several passing notations of heavy traffic. I found it an extremely generic novel in its situational manoeuvrings -- (the description of Chicago was likewise vacant) -- which lent credence to Stephen Henighan's assertion that Shields sees little difference between one place and another. (The text explicitly states this, though it's in the guise of a specific character.) I don't buy into Henighan's ideological certainties, but it's easy to see how a lack of regional specificity and strangeness plays into favourable market forces in the U.S.

Finally, a word on the theme of Larry's Party. The "maze = life" analogies were too frequent and occasionally obvious -- "every classical maze contains at its heart a 'goal'. This is the prize, the final destination, what the puzzling, branching path is all about" -- but I liked them, nonetheless.

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