Many years ago, I planned to write a dissertation centered around Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, in which the main character tries to set down his entire life story, day by day, from the moment of his conception to the present day. Several conundrums face Tristram, not the least of which is the fact that he finds his history is inextricable from his relations and friends. To tell his story, he must also tell their stories. Some of these stories he imagines, and some he knows but misconstrues, so he records them incorrectly. The other issue he faces is time: he literally plans to write down every day of his life, but for every day he writes, he loses a day. At the end of the book (which is approximately 900 pages long), he is only nine years old. He is unable to contain the narrative of his life.
Some people consider Tristram Shandy to be the first “postmodern” novel, and in recent decades several writers have sought to produce this same sort of self-referential loop-de-loop of personal history in novels and memoirs. Often these books are the literary equivalent of a child riding his bicycle without using his hands for the first time. (“Look Ma! No plot! No reliable narrator! And looky here–footnotes!”) The problem is that all the trickery often gets in the way of the narrative, and the reader simply tires of all the sleight of hand and verbal wowza.
When a writer understands the finer points of such play, however, the results can be stunning. Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries tells the story of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from beginning to end. Daisy herself is the narrator of this story, moving through her narrative both as participant and observer, changing point of view as necessary, sometimes even slipping into first person in order to give voice to other characters. Unlike Tristram, who brings in other people’s stories and gets caught up in them, losing himself as the point of reference, Daisy remains tightly at the center. She pulls the reader along through what seems like an objective account of her history, but will suddenly break through the surface of the story to let the reader know she’s still there, and even that she might not be giving the reader all the facts, or even telling the truth:
“Maybe now is the time to tell you that Daisy Goodwill has a little trouble with getting things straight; with the truth, that is.
[A] childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy’s representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt.
She is not always reliable when it comes to the details of her life; much of what she has to say is speculative, exaggerated, wildly unlikely…Daisy’s perspective is off. Furthermore, she imposes the voice of the future on the events of the past, causing all manner of wavy distortion. She takes great jumps in time, leaving out important matters…
[Hers] is the only account there is, written on air, written with imaginations invisible ink.”
She begins in the first chapter with her birth (and a sly wink to Sterne, for there is an adamantine clock keeping time through her birth and her mother’s death, and in Tristram Shandy, the winding of the clock is a metaphor for Tristram’s conception). Subsequent chapters focus on life events: Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, and Death. My favorite chapter is “Sorrow, 1965.” Daisy has fallen into a funk in this period, and she provides first person accounts from other people–her children, her best friends, her former boss, even remote characters from her childhood–as to why. What I enjoyed about this chapter is the idea that while we never know what other people actually think, we cannot escape our own idea of what we think they think. Other people’s ideas of ourselves always bear the impression of our own opinions.
My other favorite part of this book is the narrative of Magnus Flett, Daisy’s father-in-law, which she imagines in full. In reality, Daisy has no knowledge of Magnus Flett other than these “facts”: he came from the Orkney Islands to Canada as a boy; he married and had three sons; his wife left him and took the baby Daisy to live with their son in Winnipeg; he stayed in Tyndall, Manitoba until 1936 when he returned to the Orkney Islands. In truth, nobody heard a word from him after that time, and Daisy knows nothing of him until she finds him in Scotland in 1977 (or so she says). Daisy fills in the gaps for us (for him), telling the story of his passage, his long walk across the U.K. to the Orkney Islands. She has him memorize Jane Eyre. He even earns some local celebrity for it. Magnus’s escape to the Orkneys is juxtaposed with Daisy’s story of her first marriage in 1927. Such freedom set against such constriction, romance against duty.
It’s no surprise this book won the Pulitzer (1995). I originally read this back in 1996, and when a woman in my book club suggested it, I was eager to read it again, and I’m glad I did. Shields gives Daisy such depth, and her additions and subtractions, her omissions and flights of fancy offer a singular, flawed life, beautifully told. In the end Daisy shares her physical impressions of death, but the most poignant thing to me is a simple list of addresses for every home she knew in her life. On paper these are numbers and streets, and no one can really know what each of these places have meant to the people who’ve lived there. Not even we can know what they meant to Daisy.
*image from amazon.com