Friday, February 22, 2013

Carys Bray and Carol Shields: Whimsy and Artifice

Carys Bray, whose first collection of stories, Sweet Home, was published in November 2012 by Salt Publishing, received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University, where she is now a Ph.D. student and associate tutor.  Although Salt is a growing Independent publisher in England, its promotional budget is probably relatively small, especially for debut collections of short stories; consequently, Ms. Bray’s book has not been reviewed in the British press, although she has received several glowing notices from bloggers, to whom she or Salt has probably sent copies.  

Since I have been retired, I only check my campus mailbox once a year.  Recently, when I made my annual visit to my old workplace, I found a packaged copy of Sweet Home, inside of which there was a hand-written greeting from Ms. Bray. I hope it had not been languishing in that cobwebby mail cubby for a long time. I read the book with pleasure and suggest that you may also enjoy it—that is, if you like the particular kind of story that Ms. Bray writes.  I offer the following comments on that kind of story for your possible interest.

When Carys Bray was asked in an online interview who was most important to her in developing her writing life, she replied that when she was working on her BA, one of her tutors introduced her to the short stories of Canadian writer Carol Shields, and that within a couple of weeks she had read all the stories in Shield’s three collections, adding: “I found her writing funny, dark and intriguing. Shields deliberately included items like, ‘wallpaper… cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers,’ in her fiction and as I read her work, I knew that I wanted my stories to be similarly bursting with real life.”  Bray also said in the interview that after discovering how versatile the short story was, she allowed herself to experiment. “I had tremendous fun as I stocked the shelves of a surreal supermarket, invented fictional parenting books and imagined an alternative to IVF that was steeped in Nordic mythology.”

There may seem to be something of a contradiction between Bray’s wish to make her stories “bursting with life” and the “tremendous fun” she had experimenting with surreal supermarkets and Nordic mythology. Not really. There has long been a tradition in the short story of combining the stuff of everyday life with the artifice of surreal fable.  Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver did it brilliantly. So does Alice Munro, David Means, and William Trevor.  The short story, by its generic nature and literary tradition, is a form that is as much artifice as it is reality (whatever that is).  The question that Cary’s Bray’s stories raises for me is how “reality” gets embodied in the artifice of her stories and how the kind of story she writes is similar to the writer who she says has influenced her the most: Carol Shields.

Shields is better known and more respected as a novelist than she is as a short-story writer, having established her reputation with her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries.  “Light and breezy” is a phrase often used to describe her short stories.  Whereas Shields seems most interested in the realistic exploration of character in her novels, she seems primarily intent on examining ideas in most of her stories, which are frequently little “what if” concept pieces or considerations of common objects and phenomena.  To call Shields’ stories “experimental,” as many reviewers have done, may be to dignify them with more weight than she intended them to have. After all, the word “experimental” perhaps should not be confused with having fun with little narrative essays on the metaphoric significance of such things as keys, or windows, or the weather.

Typical of Shields’ kind of story is the title piece of her first collection Various Miracles, for it signals both her delight in coincidences as well as her interest in the connection between fiction and reality.  After listing several anecdotal coincidences, such as the fact that on a certain date three strangers on the same bus were reading the same novel, she narrates the longer anecdote of a writer taking her manuscript to a publisher who had earlier expressed some reservations that the novel depended too heavily on coincidences.  A gust of wind blows it out of her hands and she has to retrieve the separate sheets all over the street, only to discover that one page is missing.  Later a woman in a red coat finds the missing page while buying zucchini in a grocery store. The first lines of the page describe a woman in a red coat buying zucchini in a grocery store. 

Some of Shields’ stories are about little events of everyday reality that achieve some sort of transcendent meaning.  For example “Taking the Train” is about one woman’s experience of separate moments of un-sharable significance, such as listening to a special song or finding a rare manuscript in a museum, while “The Journal” is about a woman who keeps a notebook of the travels she and her husband make, finally describing a rare moment of intimacy that she knows occurs only two or three times in one’s life.
Shields has said that she has always been compelled by the idea of transcendental moments in which we are occasionally able to glimpse a kind of pattern in the universe.  She also has said that she used the Emily Dickinson quote “Tell the truth but tell it slant” as an epigraph to her first collection of short stories because she likes to use various angles of perspective.  What she says she likes best is to set up a story conventionally and then turn it upside down. There is always a technical problem in writing, says Shields, and often the problem gives her something to hang the fiction on. Sometimes a word or a phrase, a problem or a puzzle starts a story off, something odd or surreal--something that does not quite fit in.  She then begins with some point that interests her and starts to piece the story together, writing it over and over until it gets longer and thicker.

The title story of Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), Shields’ final collection, is a little parable about people in a town putting on costumes each day, all to illustrate that we cannot live without our illusions. “Weather” is a satirical parable about the weather ceasing to exist when the weathermen go on strike.  “Ilk” is an academic satire of postmodern jargonistic literary theory.  Shields is more effective when her little “what if” stories examine individual characters rather than abstract ideas.  For example, there is a certain poignancy and truth in “Mirrors,” about an aging couple that do not permit any mirrors or other reflective surfaces in their vacation home, thus enforcing a sort of vacation from focusing on the self.

Shields’ playful experiments sometime become mere tours de force of cleverness and ingenuity.  For example in “Absence,” a writer discovers that a certain vowel, the very letter that signifies the “hungry self,” no longer works on her typewriter.  The dilemma she faces is how to write her story without a first person pronoun, a problem she tackles as being similar to the limitations of the sonnet form.  As we follow the struggles of the fictional writer, we only gradually become aware that Carol Shields has written her entire three-and-a half-page story without a single “I”--a feat that may make one smile with admiration, but which, after all, is merely a highly-skilled jeu d’esprit.

As I said at the beginning of this little discussion, I enjoyed Carol Bray’s stories, but I must also say that the enjoyment was relatively “light and breezy,” as critics often designated the stories of Carol Shields.  Bray, a mother of four, obviously follows the common creative writing advice to “write about what you know,” for many of her stories focus on being a wife and mother.  However, her approach to these domestic topics is often, like the stories of Carol Shields, that of the jeu d’esprit. 

The first story in the collection, entitled “Everything a Parents Needs to Know,” begins with the line, “Helen’s daughter hates her,” a realistic assertion that Bray explores by juxtaposing Helen’s parental trials and tribulations with quotations from self-help books (which Bray says she invented) with titles such as Parenting for Idiots by JoAnn Humble, and A Happy Childhood, a Happy Life!, by Brenda Jolly. It’s an entertaining concoction with which parents can identify, containing a dash of whimsy and a pinch of sentiment.

Beginning sentences and closing epiphanies have always been important for the short story form, and Bray has learned her lesson well.  “Just in Case” opens with: “I’ve been looking for a baby to borrow for a number of weeks.”  It’s a chilling story about a woman’s sorrow at the loss of a child and involves, ultimately and ominously, a Samsonite suitcase.  I don’t want to summarize the plots of Bray’s stories, for that might spoil the potential reader’s fun.  However, my reluctance to say too much is also an indication how much many of Bray’s stories depend on the twist of plot.

The title story is a modern fairy tale based on the story of Hansel and Gretel, but it is somewhat less scary than the treatment of fairy tale motifs by Bray’s British predecessors, A.S. Byatt and Angela Carter. “The Ice Baby,” also a fairytale treatment, is a more universally human evocation of one of Bray’s signature themes—the poignant relationship between a mother and a child.

“The Baby Aisle” is a futuristic fable about shopping for babies in the supermarket—the kind of story that George Saunders does so well, but which once again is much lighter than the biting satire of that suddenly very famous short story writer (More about Saunders in a week or so).

“The Countdown” is a clever treatment of the fears of a soon-to-be-first-father that pushes the terror of dropping the kid on his or her head to the ultimate fantasy extremes.  “Under Covers,” which also opens with one of Bray’s clever first sentences (“Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat”) is a delicately restrained treatment of the universal female fear of breast cancer.

I thank Ms. Bray for sending me a copy of her collection of short stories.  She explores serious human issues with narrative control and whimsical style.  I wish her well.

1 comment:

Carys said...

This was such a lovely surprise. Thank you for taking the time to read Sweet Home, Professor May.