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An Endangered Species

The third day the sea was glass, and then the wind whispered at noon and feathered the glass in running swaths. For hours, Eliot watched the swaths dapple in the sun…. When he awoke, his throat was on fire, and he wanted to drink from the sea and he swallowed, and the salt burned like acid down his throat…. He closed his eyes and saw the boom over the fieldstone fireplace in the pastel living room of his house in Locust Valley and saw himself standing under it telling the story of his shipwreck. There were many people in the room listening, but they were all strangers.

In this cruel parable of First and Third World experience, Eliot Swan is joined at sea and his life saved by desperate Haitians who have fled their country seeking asylum in the United States, their battered wreck of a boat adrift for twenty days. The story would seem to be gearing up for a fairy-tale happy ending…but when American rescue workers arrive in a helicopter to save the privileged Mr. Eliot, we don’t find out whether he will insist that they save the Haitians, too.

Among Paine’s dramatic stories of winners and losers, the privileged and the victimized, the companion piece to “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?” is a surrealist horror story, “A Predictable Nightmare on the Eve of the Stock Market First Breaking 6,000,” tracing the physical and mental degradation of a female investment banker (her Cheeveresque name, Melanie Applebee) who has been fired by her superiors for having told them about her discovery that a colleague was trading illegally on inside information. Melanie Applebee has been a highly productive employee of a wealthy capitalist organization:

She had been praised by Hart’s management for her plan for a restructuring. The plan closed down marginal stores, bought a chain of cut-rate drugstores, slashed the pension program, reduced employee stock options, severely limited the health plan, and cut wages. [An associate] she went on a blind date with at the time told her everything she and he were doing was probably pure evil.

As in a medieval allegory in which “evil” is suitably punished, beautiful, blond Melanie with her MBA winds up as a piece of merchandise herself, sold by an enterprising young capitalist to an Arab sheik, and to be transported “to Mexico City, then to Oman. Or Dubai. Where the market wills.”

Clearly these savagely politicized stories are not in the fastidious, psychologically subtle mode of the mainstream modern short story that has descended through the decades from Chekhov, Joyce, and James; these are tales that play boldly with caricatures, stereotypes, and large moral issues that, in the hands of a less gifted writer, would make for unconvincing reading. In “General Markman’s Last Stand,” a Marine hero revealed as a cross-dresser prepares for his public humiliation on his last day of service. In “The Battle of Khafji” a “clean-cut Burlington [Vermont] boy” joins the marines and is shipped to fight in Operation Desert Storm, with tragic consequences (“…It was like a party: We were finally going to get some trigger time“). As this summary suggests, these are emboldened tall tales that thrive upon excess, and if the gifted Paine has any weakness it’s his very energy, which can become wearing; paragraphs dense with detail fly by us like a conveyer belt whose speed is ever accelerating, and the precarious humanity of Paine’s characters is overshadowed by the very ambitions of his prose.

Despite its fatuous cover—the torso of a chunky ballerina in green chiffon, with a cutely blank Magritte-mirror for a head—Carol Shields’s third collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is an intelligent, provocative, and entertaining collection of variegated prose pieces, both conventional and unconventional. Of the twenty-two stories a few are admittedly slight and overly whimsical; several of the more promising fade disappointingly, as if the author had lost interest; but the majority are deftly, even sunnily written, and bristling with ideas, reminding us that fiction need not be emotionally devastating or “profound” to be worthwhile.

The quicksilver opening story, a sort of musical overture, “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” glides rapidly about an unspecified Canadian city (Shields, an American, lives in Winnipeg, Ontario) with Woolfian bravura: “All over town people are putting on their costumes.” In thumbnail sketches we glimpse women and men in private moments as they reinvent themselves by way of eye-catching clothing or ornamentation, or impulsive, exotic purchases (a mango, for instance, or a big bouquet of daffodils), or sporting a “smart chignon.” Shields both celebrates and gently mocks the human need to mythologize the self, in however trifling and evanescent ways. Thinks a middle-aged man who sometimes, in secret, waltzes about in his wife’s nightgown, “We cannot live without our illusions.” The “shriveled fate” these anonymous citizens perceive for themselves can be postponed, it’s believed, by such hopeful acts.

Shields suggests that “dressing up” is what we are all doing, and certainly what writers must do, in the service of creating and sustaining the illusion of art. Several of her most winning stories are about thoroughly unromantic, self-doubting women writers. Like the middle-aged female protagonist of “The Scarf,” they have come to the writing life not by way of passion and vision but indirectly, having first been editors and scholars. The author of My Thyme Is Up is puzzled by her novel’s “sparky sales,” and has been made to feel guilty in the light of the lack of success of a more gifted but less “accessible” woman writer friend; she is awarded the Offenden Prize, given annually to a novel of literary quality that has “a beginning, a middle, and an ending”—which confirms the book’s minor status. (Shields won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries in 1995.)

In a companion story, the mildly satiric “The Next Best Kiss,” two academic writers meet and begin a love affair at a conference on the fin de siècle crisis: the male professor gives a paper titled “End of the Self” (“Todd confided to Sandy that the text… might eventually find its way into the New York Review of Books, although the editors were asking for substantial changes”); the female professor presents a seminar titled “Diatribe and Discourse in the Twenty-first Century” which is “loaded with allusive arrows” to Lacan. The love affair, such as it is, would seem to have been con-cocted out of sheer verbiage, as well as groveling need on both sides. It ends abruptly, when the woman utters an unintended truth the man isn’t prepared to accept, for all his pose of unflinching honesty.

In any case, what is happiness, in contemporary times?

…Those twin demons, happiness and sadness, had lost their relevance. Happiness was a crock; no one…really had it for more than a minute at a time. And sadness had shrunk, become miniaturized and narrowly defined, a syndrome, a pathology—whereas once, in another time, in a more exuberant century, in a more innocent age, there existed great gusts of oxygen inside the sadness of ordinary people…. Sadness was dignified; it was referred to as melancholy…. It was a real affliction, like color blindness or flat feet.

A more ambitious story about writers is “Edith-Esther,” which describes the uneasy relationship between an elderly woman writer of distinction and her intrusive male biographer, who turns the writer’s lifelong religious agnosticism inside out in the service of writing an “up-lifting” biography that, ironically, will sell better than his subject’s novels have sold. Edith-Esther knows that her biographer will misuse her, as he has misused his previous biographical subjects, but how can she protect herself?

She understood how careful you had to be with biographers; death by biography—it was a registered disease. Thousands have suffered from it, butchery by entrapment in the isolated moment. The selected moment with its carbon lining. Biographers were forever catching you out and reminding you of what you once said….

Edith-Esther can escape her biographer only by dying.

The weakest prose pieces in Dressing Up for the Carnival read as if they’ve been spun of whimsy, to be hurriedly typed out even as inspiration fades: what if the National Association of Meteorologists were to go on strike, and we had no weather for weeks; what if the Queen vanishes, and the “progression of seasons” ceases. Shields is amusing, but not very interested in pursuing where these hypotheses might lead, so these pieces tend to trail off.

The strong concluding story, “Dressing Down,” however, is a chill counterpoint to the opening story of dressing up: a young boy’s grandparents become permanently estranged over the issue of a summer nudist camp in southern Ontario, to which the grandfather is devoted. Encouraged by the grandfather to spend time with him at the camp, the ten-year-old boy is shocked and sickened by what he sees, not liberated as his grandfather had hoped:

People with their limbs and creases and folds were more alike than I thought. Skin tones, hairy patches—that was all they had. Take off your clothes and you were left with your dull suit of invisibility.

What I witnessed led me into a distress I couldn’t account for or explain, but which involved a feverish disowning of my own naked body and a frantic plummeting into willed blindness. I was launched into the long business of shame, accumulating the mingled secrets of disgust and longing….

In a final defiant gesture, the boy’s grandmother leaves instructions that after her death her naked body be placed in a coffin to be kept open at her wake; of course, the family, mired in convention, refuses to obey.

Where Carol Shields is swift, effervescent, and inclined to ideas, Alice Elliott Dark is introspective, brooding, willing to risk a kind of Jamesian stasis in the hope of deepening our engagement with her characters. Unlike Shields’s women and men, who bounce about the page like balloons, Dark’s women, men, and children are defined by and often burdened by their histories; they are individuals not to be glibly defined in terms of class or types, though they might seem, from a distance, to be of a singular species: educated, upper-middle-class, Caucasian suburbanites for whom financial security, social status, and politics are not issues. They don’t reside in Locust Valley, like Tom Paine’s privileged ugly American Eliot Swan, nor are they near neighbors of the alcohol- and lust-driven inhabitants of John Cheever’s Shady Hill. The citizens of Dark’s suburban village Wynnemoor (an inspired name) are unexceptionally intelligent, decent, and hopeful; even the adulterous are desperately eager to do the “right” thing, and no action is performed that isn’t mulled over, conscientiously.

Dark’s characters are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, almost exclusively family-defined; quite a few are middle-aged or older; it’s rare that one can say of himself: “I was a bachelor unto myself and complete. I’d never married or even fallen in love” (“The Tower”). One of the collection’s most movingstories, “Home,” takes us into the experience of an elderly woman whose invalid husband has just been admitted to a nursing home, on the dayshe’s informed by her married daughter that her husband and the rest of the family are selling the house she’d believed was hers, and making arrangements for her to live with her husband in the nursing home. When she objects, she’s informed that she has no choice, for she has no property or income of her own. This subtly rendered story becomes by swift degrees a horror story, the more terrifying for its domestic setting. The good, dutiful wife of sixty years, Lil is coldly informed by her daughter:

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