Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reading is messy business...would you have it any other way?

As I dive headlong into the challenge of trying to create authentic and meaningful conversations around fiction with my students, I am buoyed in spirit and in mind by their insightful and engaged conversations around their book club books (see last post). I love that the ideas as they come out in their online discussion treads in the realm of grey...they are complex, messy, tentative, speculative...what more do we want from our readers? Who's teaching and who's learning anyhow? The lines blur and everything else comes into focus.

Below is an excerpt of their discussion around Carol Shield's last novel, Unless, a novel that is layered and complex and yields more questions than answers. This novel's exploration of identity, gender, voicelessness and the roles we inherit and define for ourselves is a stunning testiment to Shield's final waltz with language; this book is the product of a great writer who had complete and absolute control of her craft and was at the pinnacle of her career. That they have jumped in and are sharing their tentative and vulnerable impressions leaves me breathless.


I'm about 200 pages into the book. So far i am not sure how I feel about it as a whole. I really enjoy the writing at times, however the feminist comments by Reta are a little too much for me. For example, the comment about how men don't care about anything that women is completely absurd. Reta sends these letters to editors about how women are not listened to and somehow connecting it to Norah's disappearance. I will be pretty disappointed if the reason that Norah abandoned her whole life was because she felt ignored as an individual because she is a woman. However, I think that it is unlikely that that is the case. It seems to me that the book isn't really telling me what I am waiting for which is what the deal is with Norah. I find that the reader is given little slivers of details of Norah's life before she ended up on the corner of Bathurst, however little is revealed about what is actually happening with Norah leaving me a little unsatisfied. But I don't really mind because many of the passages in the novel are quite beautiful. Like Ms. Quach said, this novel is quite "heavy" and intense, making a bit of a challenge to get through. Reta's quest to discover and understand Norah's journey for GOODNESS intrigues me, however I am always waiting for answers with this novel and never getting any.

Quach, Cindy

hmmm....i don't want to monopolize this discussion (like i did with oryx and crake) but this is really a book about the questions and not so much about the answers. with that said, i do love the sense of feeling discombobulated at the end of the book b/c it means it will continue to live and have a conversation with me (life of pi). i think this novel is about reta trying to make sense of her daughter's silence. interesting perspective: woman, translator of others' work, mother, wife...but who is she? through seen through the eyes of some strong ideas around the role of women, it can also been seen about the desire to find self in the tangle of all our obligations and responsibilities to others.

Confession: I am on page 25, for no good reason whatsoever.

So far, this novel has been completely different from what I expected. To be honest, I've been a bit disappointed in the plot. (What plot?) Reta reveals everything in a matter-of-factly tone that really creates no suspense at all. Even the revelation about her daughter Norah is presented flatly and without any warning. Perhaps that's why I'm not experiencing the urge to read that drove me to binge Oryx and Crake. (Although I'm not blaming my pace on anyone/anything but myself.)

Yet for such an absence of plot (at least in these few pages), many questions have already been raised in my mind. The most interesting is the question of whether translation constitutes art. I can somewhat connect to this question, through music. Having composed, transcribed, and performed music for years (well not transcribed, I've only been doing that recently), I find it hard to argue that any of those tasks is not "art". Yet transcription is clearly akin to translation: for example, translating the "language" of the orchestra to the "language" of the piano. Also, performing music arguably means translating the notes on paper into emotions in sound.

The real reason I decided to post is, of course, that I've just read about the physicist trying to explain to Reta Einstein's theory of relativity. I doubt that this is of major significance in the novel as a whole but I couldn't resist analyzing this short chapter in much greater depth than is probably warranted. Amazingly, Reta's two complaints - "So, the speed of light is constant. Is that all?" and "How can mass ... have any connection with how fast light travels?" echo two of the biggest questions I consistently have whenever I try to understand relativity. This chapter also gives some insights into Reta's character. Her intrapersonal strength, already established by the first chapter, is strengthened by her insightful analysis of Colin's relationship with his wife. That her thoughts always return to Norah reveals just how affected she is by the loss of her daughter. And her question to Colin - "But isn't it possible to think that goodness ... could be a wave or particle of energy" - shows admirable openmindedness, something the physicist clearly lacks. (Note to self: if I ever decide to become a physicist, remember Unless.)

To everyone, sorry for posting an incoherent rant. To my group, sorry for my snail pace. Contrary to what Ms. Quach recommended I do plan to read the majority of this novel during grad weekend. I'll make my next post a lot more interesting.


Now on page 104, and beginning to see the first bits of explicit feminism.

I will wait for more pages before making a final judgement on the validity of the feminism in this novel. However, the little that I've read has already begun to disturb me. The worst was "How do I permit myself to live with a man?", which sounds a lot like "eye for an eye", hate, spite, and various other emotions I've thought about a lot these past few days.

I find Reta's insight that "women have been hampered by their biology" intriguing. From a biological perspective, it does indeed seem that it's women who are asking for more than men, by defying both evolutionary and traditional roles. Of course, this is incompatible with the blatant inequality of the genders, or as Reta puts it, "how [women] are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements". A possibility: these "entitlements" are in fact naturally masculine and have become "primary" because of male dominance? There's something "inelegant" about this answer to the question, but I'm too tired to think about it in depth at this hour.


I haven't made any progress, but I've been thinking about the differences between the group and the individual. Personally I've always been an individualist. In general, I believe that all valid group goals translate into individual goals, while not vice-versa; hence individual goals are more important. Feminism appears to seek individual goals (even though feminism concerns the entire population of women, the rights it advocates are individual). However, when Reta says that "women have been hampered by their biology", she is making a generalized judgement on all women. When, later, Danielle Westerman asks Reta how she permits herself to live with a man, the former is again making general assumptions about all women. I don't deny that rights (ie. the right of women to live independently) not exercised can easily become lost, but when rights become obligations, I believe that the solution has come full circle in creating another problem.

Sorry if the above makes no sense. I'm still quite confused about my own thoughts at the moment.


Ronnie, I must agree with you that I feel quite confused about this book as well as my own thoughts in its regard. I am finished the book now and like Ms. Quach says, this is definitely not a book about answers, however Reta's journey to discover Norahs misguidance is an interesting one and really makes me ponder the role of myself as well as those around me. Like many, I do believe that woman deserve equality, but the lengths that this book takes go beyond equality of woman and sometimes push to mere hatred of men. The comment Ronnie mentioned about how can Reta live with a man is a perfect example. Her living with a man does not make her any less equal to him, and this statement really doesn't comment on equality. To me it seems as though to embody the voice of many woman who are frustrated with men, even though it is obvious that not all men are the same. At times I really couldn't tell what was more important to Reta. Whether it be gaining a voice for woman? Or trying to understand Norah? Or does she believe the root of Norah's anguish is that she is voiceless. Once again, I find myself only left with questions.


Before I comment on the ending I must say that Carol Shields' stream-of-consciousness style is amazing. I can feel the rise of Reta's mental confusion as she struggles to understand Norah's plight. Her changing signature on the letters she composes as an outlet for her emotions subtly suggests that she herself is undergoing the self-destruction of identity that she believes has struck Norah. And the tenderness of the climax quite easily made me forget that I was holding a paper book in my hands, with my eyelids barely open, while sweating on a couch in a stuffy living room. I was immersed into Reta's world, and I felt her impossible mix of fear, joy, pain, and relief.

My first impressions after finishing follow.

The ending was a letdown. As Micah said it gave no answers. Moreover, I feel that the strong themes of power, individuality, and reality, kittens bred throughout the novel into truly terrifying tigers, were at once tossed into the garbage bin. Everything was set up for Reta to come to terms with her identity, to discard her work as a novelist of writing frivolous lies once and for all (not my view of the art of writing), or even to reveal her final feminist-bordering-on-sexist epiphany; yet, in the end I feel like she all but gives up, and everything reverts to exactly the state of affairs before Norah's crisis. If there's one change that Reta's undergone, I'd say it's realizing the importance of understanding and acceptance. This mere hint of a theme feels quite empty and fake though.

I'm sure I'm missing something. Hopefully as I reflect on this novel in the next few days I will begin to appreciate its ending a bit more.


I'll be honest: I've been stuck in the middle for quite a while now. Nonetheless, I feel obliged to touch on a few points Micah and Ronnie have already discussed (but with a female's perspective) FEMINISM I always thought of myself as a feminist, but Carol Shield portrayal of the female role juxtaposes my own. For lack of a better word, I find her female characters tend to be whiny at times when battling between genders. In particular, when Reta wrote a letter to the magazine publisher, her words did not strike an emotional chord. I understood the importance the letter had for her seeing as it not only related to herself, but to her children. This is not how I would address my female role in society. I was hoping to see a little more leading by example from these mature women and I found it somewhat disturbing to see them still questioning the gender role. Is this an ordeal only experienced in the older generations or will I be plagued with it as well when I age? PLOT The plot lacks drive. The slow pace seems necessary, but at the same time, it is driving me crazy. I want a little more excitement and less worrying form Reta. Her worries about, well, everything is exhausting my mind. My eyes lift faster away from the page than I can read the words. The flawed characters are also hard to swallow at times. CHARACTERS By no means are the flaws wrong. The flaws within the characters makes the story come alive and feel human to me as a reader. In particular, when Reta's friends announced herself as a lesbian (I apologize for forgetting her name), I wondered whether this was because she was extremely bitter towards men or she was actually homosexual. MATURITY I'm not a mother. I don't have daughters and I certainly haven't lost one. I have no published novels, I don't translate books, and I don't write to publishers. I've never lived in a house for over twenty years and I've never been tied down to a man. When I first chose the book, I had high anticipation for what it had to offer; a new perspective, new insight. Unfortunately it turned out to be a lot different. The story, plot, and style create abundant potential that I cannot access for the very fact that it is not my time to appreciate it. Twenty years down the road, I definitely see myself enjoying the novel. Right now, it's hard to swallow. Reading Unless makes me feel angry and rebellious (probably because its a reaction I often with my mother at this adolescent age- God bless her patient soul).

Quach, Cindy
this is a valid point, justine..perhaps the theme lacks the universality that would make it more meaningful across age and gender. this novel is certainly not simple and it does make a reader work as it is densely layered and complicated and confusing. this will make good fodder for discussion.

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