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Life's rich carnival

DRESSING UP FOR THE CARNIVAL

By Carol Shields

Viking, $23.95

Reviewed by Joyce R. Slater

In a collection of short stories, Carol Shields likens life to a carnival and explores the different guises people use to help them get through their days.

It's been said that artists achieve greatness only when they learn to recognize the precise moment that the painting is finished. The masters know when to stop daubing and highlighting and just sign the thing.

By the same token, gifted short-story writers understand that their craft is more about self-restraint than self-indulgence. Short stories resonate with the reader largely because of what's been omitted. The Raymond Carvers, the John Cheevers and the Eudora Weltys leave us a little bit exasperated. "And what happened then?" is a laudatory response.

Carol Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her novel The Stone Diaries, clearly honors the maxim "Less is more." In both her long and short fiction, Shields is all about the telling gesture, the vocal nuance, the fleeting glimpse _ a "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" approach, if you will.

For starters, you won't find a single carnival in these 22 vignettes. Shields addresses herself instead to the circus of everyday living. With a rare combination of irony and empathy, the Canadian writer notes the guises _ both real and metaphorical _ that her characters assume in order to function.

In the title story, a girl deliberately chooses a summer outfit for a dreary day. Now she was "no longer just Tamara, clerk-receptionist for the Youth Employment Bureau, but a woman in a yellow skirt." Another meek civil servant impulsively buys a mango on his way to work: "He went in to buy an apple and came out with this ... Who would have thought it of him? Not his ex-wife Lucille, not his co-workers, not his boss, not even himself." A shy college freshman who thinks of herself as drowsy and dull strides along briskly this morning because she's carrying a copy of Waiting for Godot, with "the title plainly visible." "She is a young woman who is reading a great classic. Vistas of possibility unfold like money."

Serendipity looms large in Shields' scheme of things, and she delights in all its possibilities. Lizzie, one of several women who are "Dying for Love," is perfectly prepared to throw herself off London Bridge. She's only 18, pregnant by a man who's suddenly lost interest. She's poised for the plunge until she remembers she's wearing the hat her sister gave her, that flirty straw number with the violets on it: "She holds the hat in little regard, but senses at the same time the absurdity, the impossibility, of drowning in such a hat."

A young lady in "The Harp" is saved, too, but just barely. How could it be, when she was walking along and minding her own business, that the angelic instrument in question crashed through the window of an adjacent office building and landed on her foot? Since it's almost Christmas, she feels uniquely put-upon and takes little comfort from those who tell her she's lucky to be alive. Insult is added to injury when her mother's only response is, "You always were clumsy."

"Absence" traces the dilemma of a very disciplined writer; she starts work one morning, only to discover that one of her computer keys is jammed. Worse still, it's a vowel. Confident at first that she's clever enough to work around the problem, she soon finds herself in a day-long swivet. (Readers won't be surprised to learn that the offending letter is "i." Or would that be "I"?) Near dusk she types "A woman sat down and wrote."

The author is perhaps most intrigued by the idiosyncratic factors that make a man and woman fall in love, the invisible glue that makes them stay together. Two of her most moving stories deal with odd couples who prevail against the odds. "New Music" is a "what if?" scenario. What if, on a certain London train, an earnest young engineer had a hole in his pocket? What if all his change fell out with a clatter? And what if a beautiful music student hadn't been kind enough to help him pick it up?

In "Weather," a husband and wife who have depended on external structures and data in the past learn to rely on one another. The crisis that brings them together isn't a bankruptcy or a death in the family. All that's happened is that the meteorologists have gone on strike, and they scarcely know what to expect from one day to the next. "Like children," Shields writes, "we were uncertain as to how to clothe ourselves in the morning ... We were suddenly without seasonal zest, without hourly variation, without surprise and complaint, dislocated in time and space."

The Pulitzer Prize can be a daunting act to follow. Given the confidence and delicious wit of this collection, Carol Shields need not worry. Does the lady wear hats? I wonder. I suspect not.

Joyce R. Slater is a writer who lives in Kennesaw, Ga.

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