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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Carol Shields - Larry's Party

When I read Carol Shield's book Swann - A Mystery, it really pissed me off. I can't remember why exactly. I read it voraciously trying to get at the answer to the mystery and I think the answer was such a disappointment to me that I felt betrayed as a reader. I got to the end and thought, well there's a chunk of my life I'll never get back. What a waste of ink. Other than vague memories of anger, I have no remnant of the book remaining in me. Couldn't tell you what it was about. Some poet. Who wasn't really maybe. I don't know.

I did remember thinking that it was well written and I think that's why I was so angry. It COULD have been a good book. So I wasn't at all worried about Larry's Party. I was pretty sure she couldn't disappoint me the same way twice as a reader. I was right. I got a lot out of this book and the way it was structured.

The chapters are almost stand-alone short stories. They are very linked, and very chronological. There are hints dropped about the past and the future, but for the most part each section could survive on its own.

1 - 15 minutes in the life of Larry Weller, 1977
Once upon a time there was a guy named Larry Weller and he was kind of odd and worked in a flower shop and had a Harris Tweed coat. One day at a coffee shop he took someone else's much nicer Harris Tweed coat and wore it outside. He was all set to keep it, but remorse and fear got the better of him and he threw it in the garbage, walking the rest of the way in his shirt sleeves.

2 - Larry's Love, 1978
This guy named Larry Weller got a haircut, was married by a justice of the peace and then went on a honeymoon in Europe with his newly pregnant wife. He fell in love with hedges and mazes and this would become a pretty important part of his life.

3 - Larry's Folks, 1980
Larry buys a house and goes about creating a hedge maze that takes up the whole yard. He worries about his parents. He recalls the history of their coming to Canada. They left England after his mother's unfortunate incident with runner beans, botulism and a mother-in-law. Murderer.

4 - Larry's Work, 1981
Larry likes his work. Flowerfolks becomes more corporate-- purchased by Flowercity. Larry still likes his work.

5 - Larry's Words, 1983
Labyrinth, paradoxical, hypothesis, axiomatic, closure, upmarket, preoccupation, turf mazes, shepherd's race, Julian's bower, knot garden, Jerusalem, Minotaur, jeu-de-lettres, pigs-in-clover, frets and meanders, the Tremaux algorithm, pavimentum tessellatum, fylfot, wilderness, unicursal, topiary, nodes, the Mount of Venus, maisons de Dedalus, Troy-town, cup-and-ring, ocular or spiral, serpent-through-waist, chevron, banal, spokeshave, vellum tips, endpapers, lips, cords, lying press, millboard, headbands, glair, codex, railway, cooker, petrol, mazel tov, tantric, obsession, Cotoneaster horizontalis, Caragana arborescens, Ribes alipinum, dilemma, accomodate, Leguminosae, solstice, equinox, knowledge, pain, shame, emptiness, sorrow, relief.

Larry's marriage ends when Dorrie has half the maze taken out with a backhoe.

6 - Larry's Friends, 1984
Larry goes to a 16-year class reunion with his friends.

7 - Larry's Penis, 1986
Some of Larry's sexual history. He is now married to an intellectual woman called Beth.

8 - Larry Inc., 1988
Larry's business card reads A/Mazing Space Inc. He's hired to do custom mazes. Dorrie still has the half-maze in the yard of their old house in Winnipeg.

9 - Larry So Far, 1990
Larry turns forty and freaks. Then he relaxes when he turns forty-one.

10 - Larry's Kid 1991
Larry's relationship with his kid is awkward but bolstered with occasional bright flares of authentic love. He wants to talk to the kid about his conception and his parent's decision to marry, but Dorrie talks him out of it.

11 - Larry's Search for the Wonderful and the Good, 1992
Larry and his wife Beth both apply for Guggenheim fellowships. His is accepted, hers is denied. He didn't tell her he applied. So some strife, but they both go. Both do their work. His in mazes. Hers in female saints.

12 - Larry's Threads, 1993-4
Beth is offered a job in England. She takes it and they try a long distance marriage for a while. We get the history of Larry's clothes and then his hair. His second marriage is over.

13 - Men Called Larry, 1995
Larry King - TV personality, Larry Holmes - boxer, Larry Olivier - actor, Larry Liddle - from Windows Incorporated who rediscovers each year that he shares a name with Larry Weller, Larry Wellington - Chicago architect, Larry Fine - a neighbor who teaches psychology at the University of Chicago.

14 - Larry's Living Tissues, 1996
Larry falls into a coma. The ex-wives send faxes as flowers. The girlfriend sits vigil. The son reads him the newspaper out loud. Larry comes out of the coma. He and his sister take their mom's ashes to scatter them in the same lake as his father's ashes. They forget to bring the ashes, but go back the next day.

15 Larry's Party 1997
Larry hosts a dinner party for nine people:

Larry and Charlotte
Garth and Marcia McCord
Sam Alvero
Midge and Ian
Dorrie
Beth

In which it becomes clear to everyone that Dorrie and Larry still have something between them. Beth reveals her pregnancy, announces plans to move to Toronto and then withdraws this plan after seeing Larry and Dorrie at the party.

Looking back over this list I'd have to disagree with myself. Very few of the chapters could stand on their own as an independent story. But they could be shuffled around almost at will. They wouldn't need to be chronological. Sometimes peoples lives don't make the most sense in chronological order.

The chapter titles and the hedge mazes at the beginning of each section did a lot of work. It's part of what made each chapter feel complete I think. There was a theme. It's what I'd like to try with the Kenya material. We'll see.


2 Comments:

Blogger Tamara has room to write said...

Hi, I've linked to this post in my blog. just so you know... There is an update to Larry's Party that you might be interested in:
http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/story/2007/04/27/shields-labyrinth-tribute.html
enjoy!

Tamara

12:57 PM  
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