What to do in a final book? A brave novelist faces death

The Argument

Carol Shields has confronted her own imminent mortality -- brilliantly -- in 'Unless'

May 05, 2002|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

Perhaps the most courageous thing a writer can do is to knowingly write the last book. To settle in with the final hero, to weave the final themes, to put the final word upon the page, and to push back, stand up, turn one's head, and walk away. Last books: How many writers know that they are writing theirs? How many writers can bear the thought of silence, evermore? No prequel. No sequel. No next chance. Only silence.

This past March, I received a copy of Carol Shields' exquisite new novel Unless (Fourth Estate Fiction, 256 pages, $24.95) to review. It came as galleys do, accompanied by a few familiar words of promotional cheer, a brief summarization of the plot, an unadorned biography noting Shields' awards, her 12 total books. It came, in other words, without any explicit warning. It was a book to read and to review, and I promptly opened it.

And fell. Fell hard for its fierceness and its extreme acumen. Fell hard for its delightful premise, its most unapologetic screeds. Every once in a while, you hold a real book in your hands, and with Unless I knew at once that I'd entered real book territory. With Carol Shields, the language is always big enough to accommodate the very big ideas. With Carol Shields, there is the dependable thunderclap of outrageous originality.

Take, just as one instance, the notion of happiness. You've heard it described countless times before. But have you ever heard it described quite like Shields does in these, the opening paragraphs of the book? "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I've heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I've never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost.

"I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life."

Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. Who would have known what is so undeniably true without this new book, Unless?

Or who would have guessed, amid all the bite and buoyancy that follows that most perfect opening, just how those words were written? Who would have guessed that Carol Shields herself was in an advanced stage of breast cancer while she wrote this, her final book? That she wrote it, as she told The New York Times' Maria Russo, between bouts of chemotherapy, not with an eye on making a huge last gesture, but simply with an eye on spending time with a character, Reta Winters, who had appeared in an earlier short story by Shields and seemed worthy of more story.

Unless is about life, fearlessly examined. It is about good and evil, about the unanswerable and the stubborn search for answers, about those who yield power and those who are denied it. It is about a mother, Reta Winters, whose 19-year-old daughter Norah has inexplicably dropped out of her ordinary, happy-seeming existence and set herself up as a beggar of sorts on a Toronto street corner. The daughter wears a placard around her neck that says just one thing: "Goodness." She won't explain what has driven her to the streets, nor will she come home. There is nothing for Reta to do but to wait, and while she waits, she thinks, she rails, she overturns every philosophical stone to uncover life's true meaning.

It is the wit and the compassion with which Shields, through Reta, rails that made me love this book in March, when I first sat down to read it. It is the unsparing quality of the prose, the aggressive intelligence of the unabated mind. Nothing escapes Shields' eye, nor does anything intimidate it. Everything is up for grabs. "Bookish people, who are often maladroit people, persist in thinking they can master any subtlety so long as it's been shaped in acceptable expository prose," Shields' Winters opines at one point. "It isn't what we know but what we don't know that does us in," Winters states later on. "Blushing and flushing, shuffling and stuttering -- these are surface expressions of a deeper pain. The shame of ignorance is killing. 'I nearly died,' grown-ups say of their early dumb misunderstandings, and they mean that the revealing of their ignorance felt like a stoppage of the heart."

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