Not quotidian

Dressing Up for the Carnival

Carol Shields <em>Fourth Estate, 240pp, £13.99</em>

ISBN 184115164

Absence, a story in Carol Shields's new collection, echoes Georges Perec's La Disparition in both name and conceit. Famously, Perec set out to write a novel without using the letter "e" and succeeded. Shields matches him, discreetly, with a story about a writer and a broken keyboard from which the letter "i" has disappeared: "She would be resourceful, look for other ways, and make an artefact out of absence. She would, to put the matter bluntly, make do." Making do, cheerful canny compromise, reappears in Invention. Initially inspired by uxorial devotion, the unexpected commercial success of the steering-wheel muff results in marital breakdown. The special strain of creativity on domestic relations is picked up in another story, New Music. Here a woman is up early, typing away at a secondhand word processor while her family sleeps on. The work in progress is her biography of the composer Thomas Tallis, undeservedly overlooked for so long. There is a similar attempt to redress critical orthodoxy in The Next Best Kiss. Sandy works on a 19th-century botanist, a little-known autodidact whose thoughts paralleled Darwin's. She also has a weakness for the strong, silent kind of male portrayed in old films. Unfortunately her lover is a garrulous academic who can even talk himself into jealous rivalry with the long-dead rustic botanist.

Casual thematic links occur within, as well as between, the stories. The best example is the title story, Dressing Up for the Carnival, which introduces a sequence of disparate characters through the small props that support them in ordinary life: a favourite yellow skirt; a bunch of daffodils; a defunct plastic ski pass. Somehow, out of this shambolic collection of odds and ends, Shields conjures a seamless and compelling narrative. In Keys, she goes a step further. Not only is this story a seemingly random collection of anecdotes about keys, but it also describes a woman throwing a random selection of objects out of her apartment window for no apparent reason. And among these randomly selected objects is a cracked teacup containing flotsam and jetsam. Once again, from complete chaos a narrative pattern emerges.

Shields's power as a storyteller will come as no surprise following the success of The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party. What is riveting, however, is the extent to which she continues to push her luck, launching improbable experiments and stretching her powers to bring them under control. Flatties: their various forms and uses, for example, is a short treatise on unleavened bread, a strange combination of fiction, social anthropology and mysticism. Windows, on the other hand, links fiction to political theory. It recounts the struggle of two artists to express their creativity under a regime that has imposed a window tax. Stop! - shortest and oddest of all - is centred on an absent queen who has gradually withdrawn, on grounds of allergy or intolerance, from all that is commonplace: music, fresh air, nourishment, even speech.

Amid Shields's playful invention, an attitude of cheerful common sense covers, protects and decorates much that is searingly original in her prose. Some mistake it for the quotidian: "The triumph of the ordinary" according to the Guardian last month. And sometimes this seems fair enough. In the tongue-in-cheek story Soup de Jour, for example, a woman is learning French: "Naturally, she favours those regular, self-engrossed verbs - manger, penser, reflechir, dormir - that attach to the small unalarming segments of her daily existence." In Eros, another woman puzzles over Le Monde, and each time she manages to translate a sentence she congratulates herself.

Shields, characteristically modest and unassuming, recently described her own writing as "incremental", patched together like a patchwork quilt. She could have easily compared her latest book to Perec's La Vie Mode d'Emploi, another text pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and frequently compared to James Joyce's Ulysses.

But perhaps Shields doesn't realise how good, how important, how eminent she is? Sure. And I'm an elephant's eyebrow, as the female academic in Shields's novel Mary Swann would say. She knows, but she chooses to cover up. This is her prerogative. It may even be part of her point.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul