Dressing Up for the Carnival
Penguin, 2000. 224 pages. $15 (paperback).
Perhaps this could be considered less of a book review and more of a short story review. After reading this collection almost ten years ago, I still haven’t been able to get “Absence” out of my head.
I originally picked up this collection on a Barnes and Noble discount table at a time in my life when I could be seduced by a short story collection. I’d like to think that I still have that curiosity having picked up Delicate Edible Birds the other day. But there is something odd about the ambivalence of US Americans toward the short story. The short story, along with jazz, is supposed to be a uniquely American invention, perfected by Hemingway and upheld by the New Yorker. Yet I find most Americans, given the choice, would rather pick up a novel than a short story (or a short story collection).
I grant that I might not be giving my fellow Americans enough credit. My evidence is purely anecdotal. Look inside a Ladies Home Journal today, however, and you will find nary a short story. Same with Teen, Seventeen, and a host of other fluffy magazines that once held fiction between their covers. Commercial magazines are no longer a place for new authors to get their feet wet. Instead, stories are relegated to small, independent trade magazines or academic journals where they are read only by a few.
Enough with the rant. Shields won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 with The Stone Diaries (now a Penguin Classics edition!). This collection brings together 22 of her stories. Most are brilliant little gems. My favorite, and the one that caused me to write this review, is “Absence,” about a writer who sits down to work only to find “one of the letters of the keyboard was broken, and, to make matters worse, a vowel, the very letter that attaches to the hungry self” (92).
What is so brilliant about the story? Shields herself refuses to use the letter through 4 gripping pages of anguish, desire, and, eventually, resignation. I find her care to the craft, the ingenuity, the skill of writing to be fascinating. It’s a lesson in writing all to itself.