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Mazing Grace
by Clara Thomas

On the final day of their two-week honeymoon tour of England, Larry and Dorrie Weller were taken to Hampton Court Palace. There Larry lost himself for an hour in one of the world's most famous mazes, and there the future course of his life was determined: "And now, here in this garden maze, getting lost, and then found, seemed the whole point, that and the moment of willed abandonment, the unexpected rapture of being blindly led."
And so we follow the maze of Larry's life from 1977 to 1997, through Larry's Love, Folks, Works, Words, Friends, Penis, and on to the final and climactic fifteenth chapter, Larry's Party. I had not been conscious before of the chapter breaks in Carol Shields's fiction, but here the chapters are separate and distinctive, as she herself has described them, "like little boxcars that I have to fill up." Chronological though the progression is, the time-line of the chapters is often varied by flashbacks to earlier circumstances and happenings, signalled in the text by a double space and spoken sometimes as if by Larry himself from the inside of his consciousness, sometimes from the outside by the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. A few times we are treated to foreshadowings of the future, more often by hints of what the future may hold, and quite often, the chapters begin with an introductory summary of what has gone before in Larry's life, rather like the quick summaries of soap operas in the weekly papers. Each chapter is a segment of Larry's own maze, and each one forms a segment of his life's journey, the search for the goal that lies at the heart of every maze.
Larry's Party is elegantly written and designed, every chapter prefaced by the drawing of a different maze design. On the title page, there is a deliciously bemused baby photograph, which is just right for Larry, who is still bemused and confused as a young adult. Ever since her first novel, Small Ceremonies, came out in 1976, I have been a faithful reader of Shields's work, delighting in its variety and quality, and especially enjoying her own obvious delight in the telling of stories and the structuring of words. She writes of "ordinary" people, but at the same time she sparks sudden flashes of coincidence or insight that reveal the extraordinary, the mysterious within people and situations. She plays with the possibilities of words and their infinite combinations with a sureness of touch that makes us suddenly aware of the magic that hovers at the edges of the most everyday circumstances. She is an innovator and an experimenter, and she has become more and more daring since that first absurd but satisfying diversion within Small Ceremonies: Martin, a conservative academic, sets out to render Paradise Lost into a wall-hanging of many-coloured wools. In recent novels, the exotic elements have become central: in The Republic of Love the mermaids were Fay's scholarly preoccupation; in The Stone Diaries Cuyler Goodwill's memorial to Mercy, his wife, was a strange and obsessively realized stone tower. In Larry's Party, mazes are the agents of magic, those complex labyrinthine paths that beckon and enchant him, at the same time matching the confusions of his own life.
I suppose one should never be surprised that talented artists can anticipate the popular preoccupations of their times, but somehow the evidence of their early warning systems always remains a surprise and a splendid vindication of their work. So it is with Shields's mazes: the Guardian Weekly of July 27th contained a lengthy article on the awakening of popular enthusiasm for mazes, both ancient and newly designed. Last year, Isabelle de Beaufort of Reignac, France, a former newspaper business manager, and her partner, Bernard Ramus, an architect, planted corn in a complicated maze design. Eighty thousand tourists turned up; this year they have planted thirty-seven acres representing English, Scandinavian, and African patterns:
"From a helicopter 70m above the world's biggest maze, families can be seen wandering through nearly 5km of green-fringed alleyways, enjoying the age-old pastime of getting lost.. [The cornfields] provide the framework for frustration and eventual triumph, essential to the mythology of labyrinths representing humankind's ability to overcome the setbacks of life." Larry, from his initial bedazzlement at Hampton Court, left Dorrie and their young son Ryan when she hired a backhoe to destroy the first maze he had begun to design around their little house. In the course of the next decade, he became Canada's maze specialist, and then left his florist's job in Winnipeg and moved to Chicago to study design under the famous Eric Eisler. Finally, by 1988 he was acknowledged to be the foremost and most famous maze designer in North America. Mazes have not sprung up on every corner, but they have become a popular-and expensive-rich man's garden diversion; they are a triumphant success that is at the centre of Larry's life, and he is now sought-after and prosperous. His second wife, Beth, is a scholar of religion, specializing in women saints and the various representations in art of the Annunciation. It is possible that Shields exposes us to somewhat more of Beth's academic obsession than the plot, or the reader's interest, warrants; Larry's mazes are green and growing, living plantings with each one different from the rest, but Beth's increasingly avid grasping of research fodder sends up warning signal flares about dry-as-dust academics. In the end, Beth's interest in the marriage wanes, but perhaps not before the reader's interest in her has dissipated as well.
Larry grew up as the shy and, in his own eyes, passive and commonplace son of Dot and Stu Weller, a housewife and a master-upholsterer in the Air Rider bus factory (respectively). He took a course in floral design at Red River College simply by chance, because his mother decided that "floral design really is the future." He met Dorrie by chance too, and though they planned to marry "sometime", the day came earlier than they expected, because, by another chance, Dorrie got pregnant. But Larry was far more remarkable than he knew, and an important part of his unique self was his delight in and curiosity about words. Early in their acquaintance, Dorrie accused him of using "college words" when he complained of her primitive dependence on the word "fuck"; he bought a dictionary and kept it under the counter at Flowercity where he worked, because he was constantly surprised and intrigued by words that were new to him. He loved every new word he learned, "paradoxical", for instance: ".it `pops' on his tongue." "Larry's Words" is a key chapter, as Shields shows him moving away from a meagre self-awareness and outward into a limitless world of experience, self-awareness, and emotional potential through his eagerness for words. At its end, as he sees the ruin of his first maze, "What he felt was the steady pummelling of words against his body: knowledge, pain, shame, emptiness, sorrow.. And Larry himself, stunned, battered, and opening his mouth at last, giving way not to speech, but to language's smashed, broken syllables and attenuated vowel sounds; the piercing cries and howls of a man injured beyond words." Years later, older and much wiser, both Larry and Dorrie know and admit that when they were together they hadn't either the words they needed or the understanding of the words: " `There are the words themselves and-' `and what's behind the words.' "
In an earlier article on Shields's work I called her "word-enchanted". She is that indeed, and she is also a consummate recorder of the myriad details of dailiness in our lives. "Larry's Party", the climactic chapter of the novel, brings its action to closure. Settled once again in Winnipeg, Larry is ready for his ultimate maturity: "In a sense he's spent his whole life in a state of recovery, but has only begun at age forty-five, to breathe in the vital foreknowledge of what will become of the sovereign self inside him." Charlotte Angus, his friend and sometimes agreeable bedmate, instigates a dinner-party for nine, including Dorrie and Beth, Larry's two former wives, as well as Midge, his sister. The occasion offers a wonderfully amusing and soul-satisfying record of a dinner-party, its random and rambling elements somehow held safely within a planned and controlled framework. Most of all it communicates the holiday from dailiness that a party offers, replete with the possibilities, illusory or not, of new patterns and possibilities. The party's labyrinthine highways and byways of conversation produce an Alice in Wonderland mixture of the absurd, the inconsequential, and, finally, Larry's arrival at the heart of his maze. The old, traditional drama convention of a dance at the end of a comedy produces the selfsame elements, cheering and reassuring to all maze-walkers.
Does Larry finally reach the goal, the prize, at the heart of his maze? Dear Reader, I can assure you that you will not be bored with following his journey, though its outcome is Carol Shields's privilege to show you, not mine!

Clara Thomas is a professor emeritus at York University. She is particularly known for her writings on Margaret Laurence.


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