Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

July 27, 2011

The Weekend Sun, September 13, 1997

In 1995 Carol Shields gave the Bill Duthie Memorial Lecture at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, where she alluded to the failure of contemporary novelists, herself included, to write about happy marriages. With Larry’s Party, her latest novel, she still hasn’t tackled that monumental plot challenge, but she does tackle the war of the sexes.

Before going further let me say that Shields’ new novel is, while acknowledging that comparisons are spurious, even better than The Stone Diaries. It’s also better than the recent novels of three other grandes dames of English Literature: A.S. Byatt’s Babble Tower, Doris Lessing’s Love Again and Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor, While these, novels suffer from a kind of irritability with the reader’s desires and needs, even a weariness with the demands of others period, Larry’s Party has a rapt listening quality, a kind of Buddhist detached-yet-attentive love for its character that radiates outward to include the reader. 

Like Woody Allen at his best (before the fall, when insight was replaced by its opposite) this is a humanist work whose humor and compassion for human beings (polyester to cashmere) spills out of its own confines into our lives. Shields carries us even further than Allen’s urban and emotionally urbane sketches into more operatic territory; she conjures the big sweep and the big emotions from a plain story.

The novel spans 20 years in the life of Larry J. Weller, starting in 1977 in Winnipeg when he is 26 and ending in 1997 when he is twice divorced and hosts his first dinner party in Toronto with, among others, two ex-wives and one girlfriend in attendance.

He begins his working life with a degree in Floral Arts and a job in a flower shop, returning home to his wife, Dorrie, who works as a car dealer and his young son Ryan. When his first marriage ends, he leaves his job as manager of the flower shop and embarks on a second career as an expert in the creation and maintenance of mazes, inspired by a solitary epiphany in an English maze on his first honeymoon.

A commission to build a maze in Chicago, Ill. draws him to his second reincarnation as a self-employed man with all the yuppie trimmings, a renovated character home, a second wife, Beth, with a consuming academic career, nice clothes and a growing social and introspective vocabulary. Shields writes, “Is Larry cool? No, impossible. His genes are bright and lively enough, but his social conditioning keeps him suspicious of coolness. He’s recently filled out a pop culture quiz and scored in the ‘young fogey’ category.” 

Larry is reminiscent of the men in Richard Ford’s novels—ingenuous, struggling, neither emasculated nor macho but with strains of both, no apparent sense of entitlement, and above all, a kind of pervasive bafflement and surprise at the life he finds himself in. This separation between the individual and the various roles he happens to find himself in is rich territory.

In his first marriage Larry has few words to describe this separation between his self and his day-to-day life.

He is still emerging from the stammering intellectual opacity of adolescence; he has no vocabulary with which to explore any of the large vague movements— the sense of promise, excitement and defeat—shifting in his brain. Shields shows how the lack of words dooms his first marriage, putting certain necessary actions and emotions out of reach, uncommunicable both to himself and his wife. 

Larry attends a high-school reunion just after the end of his first marriage. Someone at his table has told the class’s golden girl to “go fuck herself” and the table goes silent, then bursts into laughter. It’s a moment of sudden liberation for Larry. “Larry’s brain sings, as though he has just worked out a long, difficult mathematical problem. And somewhere else, just out of earshot, he senses that his life is quietly clearing its throat, getting ready, at last, to speak.

Shields is brilliant in the subtle way she brings Larry into focus through the incremental bursts in his vocabulary that accompany the experiences life throws at him: learning about mazes, knowing different women, conversations with male friends, being a father. By the end Larry is less broken and limited than Richard Ford’s characters (Shields is aiming at something different than Ford); he has a broad emotional and intellectual range and so, accordingly, does the novel.

The narrative time of the novel is organized partly along the structure of a maze, so although the story spans a linear 20 years, the narrative time it covers, starting from a baby photograph of Larry in his high chair (which appears on the title page), and even before to traumatic events in his parents’ life, is much more circuitous and dense. Shields leads us along the path of Larry’s life, stops abruptly, doubles back, picks another avenue and advances rapidly across a great swath of time, only to turn back to a remembered scene that is temporally, though not narratively, a dead end.

There’s a wonderful moment when, during a presumably post-coital, meandering conversation with his second wife Beth about penises and what men want, Larry’s thoughts veer off on a different path and bring him suddenly to a private alcove. 

“And there’s something else that Beth can never be told, which is that the wholly unexpected happiness of Larry’s second marriage has created within him a new tide of love toward his first wife, Dorrie.”

The love Larry feels at this moment is one of the small rewards for the wandering, for his willingness to be lost in, his life’s maze. He has stumbled across an intersection of love inside himself, sexual, romantic and universal, and his feeling for his second wife is so generous, so surprised, that it leaps across time and space and embraces his first wife.

“. . . every classical maze contains at its heart a ‘goal.’ This is the prize, the final destination, what the puzzling, branching path is all about. The goal can be a small mound or an ornamental tree . . . The choices are limitless, but there is always something to reward the patience of those who have picked their way through the maze’s path and arrived at the chosen place.”

The dinner party at the end—Larry’s Partyis the centre of the maze, at once the end, the middle and a new beginning. All that has gone before is present at the table. The evening is a vivacious mini-play, replete with all the complexity and reverberating subtext, the chaos and social rhythms and interruptions of an adult dinner party with lively guests, plentiful wine and infinite combinations and levels of connection to each other. It’s funny, sensually pleasurable, rejuvenating and deep. Shields evokes that primitive quality by which everyone’s ties to each other and society are reconfirmed.

There is much allusion to the complexity of mazes and their metaphoric equivalence with human life, but what we’re left with, after reading Larry’s Party, what rises above the narrative, is the opposite of complexity; it is the impression of a life, the unfolding of a life in all its shining simplicity. 

Larry’s Party
By: 
Carol Shields
Publisher: 
Random House of Canada, 352 pages, $31