A Fascination for Mazes

Two and a half years after winning a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Stone Diaries, the novelist Carol Shields remains mystified by what there was about that book that so captured
the imagination of readers worldwide.

It was a complete surprise to me,” the 62-year-old native of Oak Park, Ill., and for the past 40 years a resident of Canada, said last week during an interview occasioned by release of her latest effort, Larry’s Party (Viking, 339 pages, $23.95).

Personally, I thought The Stone Diaries was a rather sad book. But when you think about it, what that novel did was explore the frustrations of a middle-class woman, and we just don’t have many novels written about middle-class women. A lot of readers have told me that they saw themselves in the character of Daisy Stone Goodwill, so perhaps that may explain it.

Whatever the explanation, Shields said that having won America’s most prestigious literary prize caused no undue pressure to achieve similar approbation for Larry’s Party.

I have never felt that a writer is obliged to top herself with each succeeding effort, she made clear. I trust the reader to know that each book is a separate endeavor. And the truth is that you don’t expect to win a Pulitzer Prize once, let alone twice. So I felt no sense of urgency whatsoever.

As a consequence, she had no misgivings about writing a novel that would enter the mind and body of a man, and trace his emotional development through 20 crucial years in the second half of the 20th century, 1977 to 1997.

I felt I had a little experience in listening to men talk, Shields, the mother of five adult children and chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, said. The most difficult part is getting into that male body. Another is the way the synapses of the brain work; I have no doubt that the wiring is different.

Like Daisy in The Stone Diaries, the title character of Larry’s Party, Larry Weller, is an ordinary person, not heroic in any way, a fairly straightforward male making his way toward middle age and trying to achieve a state of personal equilibrium.

We first meet him as a young innocent, naive in the ways of the world, embarking on the first of what will be two unsuccessful marriages, and a career that will grow from the provincial life of a florist in Canada to that of an internationally renowned creator of intricate garden mazes based in Chicago.

In snap-shot chapters that zero in on telling moments of Larry’s life, we follow him on a zigzag course that more or less parallels the nature of his profession—trying to figure out how to go from one place to another without getting hopelessly lost all the while working toward the house party of the title, which brings all the principals together to produce an uncertain but nonetheless satisfying denouement.

Even though I have always been fascinated by mazes, I did not start out with the idea of using them as a metaphor in this novel. That just happened. Mazes exist in every culture and go back to pre-history. I like the formal organization of mazes, and I think Larry does too.”

At the heart of the novel is the central question: What is it like being a man in the second half of the 20th century? I wanted to write about a man born in 1950, so that he would be 50 at the time of the millennium, Shields said.

The idea to write chapters that would move along a specific time line, but employ flashbacks and focus on discrete episodes in Larry’s life, emerged from a certain conviction Shields maintains about men in general. I think, on average, men tend to compartmentalize their lives, which this kind of narrative strategy suggests, she said.

Since receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, Shields is much better known among American readers, although she has been writing productively for 22 years, producing several novels and short story collections, including The Orange Fish, Swann, Various Miracles, Happenstance and The Republic of Love. She also has written three plays and published two volumes of poetry.

Even though she has lived in Canada all of her adult life, Shields has retained her American citizenship, a circumstance that made her eligible to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Her books have won numerous awards in Canada, including the Governor General Award. Shields believes that all serious novels involve an attempt at looking for a true home in the metaphorical sense. While acknowledging it is true that Larry in Larry’s Party, and Daisy in The Stone Diaries, are basically common people living out ordinary lives in the 20th century, she does not see the two books working in counterpoint to one another.

My general attitude is that there are no great men or great women, period,” she said. “Most of us are capable of moments of great courage and moments of cowardice and inanity and a sort of speculative generosity. I think we move all over the place. But great men? Great women? I say baloney. People are great in moments.”