Friday, November 11, 2011

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields (Random House first Canadian edition, 1997, 339 pp.)

Carol Shields (1935-2003) is a prominent member of the canon of Canadian writers. Although she is originally from the US and once won a Pulitzer prize (for The Stone Diaries), I had never heard of her until I moved to Canada. After finding out about her, I happened to read something of hers that I didn't care for, and so a second book of hers, The Box Garden, languished on my dresser unread for several years until I finally got around to giving it a try. I thought it was fairly original and nicely written, so I looked for something else by Shields in the public library, and the only thing they had on the shelf that day was Larry's Party.

A good book is always better, I'd say, if you expect nothing much of it in advance, so I don't want to overpraise it. Not much that is exciting happens, really, in Larry's Party. It covers twenty years of a man's life, from his twenties to his forties, 1977 to 1997; and during that time Larry learns a pretty interesting profession, marries twice, has one child, gets sick and recovers, lives in two countries, and slowly goes through a process of maturing.

What makes the book especially exciting to me, really, is its apparently unique structure. It's not chronological internally, and yet its overall motion is a chronology. At one point, Larry has a body scan for medical reasons, and the way the scan slices the body into segments seems to be related to the way Shields slices Larry into different views that can be put together to make a whole picture of the man.

Each chapter is focused on a specific aspect of Larry, and similar events are repeated in different chapters, through the lens of this different focus. The fifteen chapters include Larry's Love, 1978; Larry's folks, 1980; Larry's Work, 1981; Larry's Words, 1983; Larry's Penis, 1986; Larry's Search for the Wonderful and Good, 1992; Larry's Threads, 1993-4; Larry's Living Tissues, 1996.... By the end of the book, we know Larry quite intimately, as a person, similarly complex to ourselves.

There's a story about Shaw, that he was asked how he wrote such interesting women characters. He is said to have replied: "I imagine that a woman is a person like myself, and that is how the trick is done." In Larry's Party, Shields has reversed that gaze. In the last scene, the women in Larry's life have quite a discussion about gender and the role of men, which at this point we can consider from inside the persona of a pretty decent man, who is able to hear it without discomfort.

In my experience it is fairly rare for a novel to have an original structure that is both very evident and very functional. The great exemplar that comes to mind is Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Larry's Party is nothing so monumental, but it stands out as being constructed with mastery of the craft. The research Shields did into garden mazes is also very gratifying.


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