Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Carol Shields' Swann

I liked the impetus behind Carol Shields' 1987 novel, Swann. A kid glove satirical jab at silly, pretentious academics who opine on the poetry of an obscure poet brutally murdered by her husband, it had the potential to comment on academic careerism, the ambiguous nature of art, and the vicissitudes of celebrity within the arts community. Unfortunately, though Shields scores a few points from these ideas, the novel's focus is on dull character sketches and unfunny dialogue.

Swann is divided into five chapters. Each of the first four concentrates on one of the main characters; the final chapter, reminiscent of her later Larry's Party, brings these and other characters together in a symposium supposedly shedding light on the life and art of the titular victim, but instead "exposing" the shallow, pompous, petty, and/or narrow-minded attributes of the attendees. The scare quote in the previous sentence is so because the point has been made redundant long before the conference. It still would have been OK if the final scene had provided some laughs, but it doesn't, and the uninteresting subplot "whodunnit" is even less thrilling.

The only parts I enjoyed were most of chapter four in which Frederic Cruzzi, the contrasting sympathetic character, was visited by a pitiable Swann the day before her murder, as well as the subsequent emotional incident with his loved and loving wife. That still doesn't make up for the excruciating chapter three (and parts of the last chapter) wherein a shy, reclusive Rose Hindmarsh is allowed to expansively ruminate on a fascinating life between library and night-reading in her rented suite.

The regularly displayed poetry of Swann is perhaps, in a postmodern smirk, meant to get the reader going on subtlety and genuine emotion vs derivation and cliche, the more heavily invested of us finally realizing we're the butt of the joke. But because academics are frequently made to look silly (when anyone cares to pay attention) doesn't render useless exegesis and evaluation. Shields' novel of "ideas" would have been a lot more interesting if she took a stand on that issue. Better poems would have been a prerequisite for that kind of exploration, though.

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