#55 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1995): Reality Bites, but that’s Totally OK

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” T. S. Eliot

“Back to life, back to reality.” Soul II Soul

This was my first weekend in a while without Game of Thrones and it was a little rough. I’m slightly obsessed with the show. Ok, strike “slightly.” How obsessed am I? When I watch the show on TV, I will pause it just to see how much time is left. And no matter what the answer is, I’ll feel sad that it’s not enough. I still have the last episode saved on not one, but two televisions in the house in case I want to re-watch any of the super depressing things that happened last week.

In fact, not only am I totally caught up on the show, but I’ve also started to go back and read the books. They are, and this is an understatement, dense. But in a good way. And as with any novel/film comparison, there are a ton of details in a 700-page book that could never be included in a 10-episode television season. For example, Thrones has the most sprawling cast on television and I already struggle to differentiate all the Aryas, Ashas and Oshas, but there are literally thousands of named characters in the book series.

Another thing that gets short shrift in the television series are the references to dozens of songs conveying the oral history of Westeros – one of the lands Thrones inhabits. In Westeros – as in our own actual medieval times – most of the general populace did not have the ability to read or write. As such, ballads are the vehicle through which the people remember the past and express their emotions. Like “Brave Sir Robin.”

In the novels, George R. R. Martin created verses for almost a dozen songs but most haven’t made it into the show. They have names like “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Dance of Dragons,” “A Rose of Gold,” “The Last of the Giants,” “The Bloody Cup,” “The Day They Hanged Black Robin,” and “Lord Renly’s Ride.” They tell the stories of individuals whose brave deeds, loves lost, and revenges taken will live on lost after their fictional demise. And I will somewhat shamefully admit that it makes me a little sad that no one will write a song about me.

But on those occasions in which I’ve drifted toward narcissism (they happen more often than you think; or maybe not), Thrones usually comes through with teaching moment. In this case it came at evil King Joffrey’s wedding as one of the singers serenades the crowd with a song about the bravery of Joffrey and his mother Queen Cersei at the Battle of the Blackwater. Despite the fact that it was Joffrey’s uncle, the dwarf Tyrion, who actually turned the tide of that battle, the singer sings endless verses about Cercei’s and Joffrey’s valor. Sansa, Tyrion’s wife, sits silently for a while, but when she can’t take it anymore, blurts out “She never did that.” In response, Tyrion tells her, “Never believe anything you hear in song, my lady.” Lesson learned.

My takeaway from these wise words is that I shouldn’t be sad because even if someone wrote a song about me, you shouldn’t believe it anyway. A point that was recently emphasized to me in the Audience Award winning talk that author and fellow Piedmonter Kelly Corrigan gave at The Nantucket Project earlier this year.

In her talk titled “The Power of Acceptance,” Corrigan tells us that we’ve been taught that a good story involves likeable characters overcoming obstacles and reaching a neatly wrapped resolution. In her words, we find stories satisfying because they offer us a “catharsis,” followed by “a return to normalcy.”

The problem, however, is that life rarely follows this script. The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, for example, is an exception that proves the rule. We remember them precisely because their feat was remarkable in its rarity. In Westeros there would have been a song written about them. Maybe “The Song of 20” or “Brooks and the Bear.” In contrast, “reality is hard,” Corrigan says. “And so, we leave out the scary, problematic bits.”

According to Corrigan, rather than escaping reality, we need more acceptance – “the Mount Everest of human emotions” – in our lives. Acceptance of our parents, children, spouses, jobs and all the other crazy shit that has and will happen to us. We need more acceptance of ourselves. But in this day and age of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, acceptance has become so difficult because we – and I am absolutely including myself in the royal “we” – have become little PR machines, retelling our stories on social media in a truth-ish sort of way minus the scary, problematic bits.

Part of the solution, Corrigan argues, is to look for stories that embrace life in its full complexity. Like Game of Thrones? Maybe not. But not surprisingly, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, is a perfect example. The Stone Diaries follows the life of Daisy Goodwill from her birth in her mother’s kitchen in 1905 to her death in the 1990s. At first I thought it was just a simple and interesting (but not spectacular) account of a woman’s life. But as I continued reading, I realized that although on the surface it appears deceptively simple, in reality it is fairly complex and multi-layered. Like reality. Like life.

The book leaps from decade to decade and each chapter of the book is titled for a specific – and for most of us familiar – stage of her life: Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, and Death. It begins when her mother, the absurdly fat Mercy Stone, dies bringing her into the world. (But not before, I might add, Ms. Shields provides an unexpected description of the erotic life of Mercy and her husband that involves phrases such as “vast regions of pink flesh,” “trembling generosity of her arms and thighs,” and “exalting abundance”).

And from there, the book never provides a conventional plot to the story. Daisy is simply the consummate Every Woman and her crises are the normal ones. After her mother’s death, Daisy is raised by a neighbor and meets a guardian who, years later, will become her husband. At the age of 11, she is reunited with her father at a time when they are complete strangers to one another. Daisy marries and is widowed. Twice. She has children. She has a career. The novel ends, similar to The Tinkers, with the death of Daisy as images from her long life such as fragments of overheard conversations, lost recipes, shopping lists and book titles, spin through her mind.

In the end, it’s a story about an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life, and dying an ordinary death. She is of “moderate intelligence” and an average-sized ego. She has no claims to distinction except for the fact that during her life, the world changed almost beyond recognition. And while that might not sound like a positive introduction, I can without hesitation say that, for me, although Daisy’s life is ordinary, it is still utterly absorbing. Emphasis on the “for me” part.

I enjoyed this novel predominantly for two reasons. First, I love the way Shields tells the story. Although Daisy’s life is presented mostly through narration, it is buttressed by letters, tombstones, a family tree, photographs (which occasionally contradict the narrative), words etched into a Victorian plate, a luncheon menu, Aunt Daisy’s Lemon Pudding recipe, to-do lists, a list of books read, and a sheet with every address at which Daisy lived. Moreover, though it is written as if it’s an autobiography, the book moves both backward and forward through time, giving perspectives and experiences of many of the supporting characters, including Daisy’s father, the woman who raises her, her husband, and her children. And in one of my favorite parts, a paragraph lists the things Daisy had never done or experienced in her life, including driving a car, skiing, body massage, pierced ears, and cigarettes. This list of exclusions couldn’t have given me a better understanding into the life and times Daisy lived and lived in.

The second reason I love this book, and this you may have already guessed, is that it demonstrates that all of our ordinary lives are actually extraordinary. And for most of us, it won’t be a single person or plot twist or moment that makes it memorable. There will be no Olympic gold or Battle of the Blackwater. Instead, it will be the culmination of lots of smaller moments, including the “problematic, scary bits.” The Stone Diaries may not be hopeful and mushy with a “catharsis” and “return to normalcy” ending; but it is a valiant attempt to capture the complexities of one’s life; one’s family and friends; and one’s place and purpose in this crazy, non-linear world. This book is truly about the journey.

The book also provides a related message that is worth mentioning. Despite the fact that the story is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters, many of whom are very close to Daisy, we never feel that we truly know or comprehend her. Some readers may find that annoying, but this may be a far more accurate assessment of our understanding of the people around us. Because our actual lives are far more complex than the stories we love (even Game of Thrones), we create the stories we want to hear. As Shield’s notes, “our own stories are obscenely distorted.” And this realization hits on another truth, which is that we all make assumptions of what others think about us, but these assumptions spring from our own subjective self-image and, therefore, could never truly be accurate.

So what Game of Thrones, The Stone Diaries and Kelly Corrigan have taught me is that when I begin to obsess that my story isn’t following the preferred plot line, I just need to pause, take a breath, and say to myself, “You know nothing, John Orta.” Or maybe just, “Accept.” Climb the Mount Everest of human emotions and accept things the way they are. Even if chances are that no one will write a song about me, and I won’t say cool things like “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” or “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder,” or even “Make the bad man fly,” it’s ok.

Because you know what else I learned this week? Sometimes life does follow the preferred plot line. Sometimes dreams do come true. We just watched the Warriors complete their fairy tale season that wasn’t supposed to happen. Jump shooting teams aren’t supposed to win championships, right Charles Barkley? Guys who don’t start a single game during the regular season aren’t supposed to win MVP awards, right Andre Igloudala? And certainly if you start Draymond Green at center there’s no chance of victory, right Steve Kerr? In fact, Draymond summed up the whole experience during the post-game celebration when he spied his mom in the crowd and yelled to her over the fans unmistakeable “WARRRRUUUUURRRS” cry, “They told me I can’t play in this league.” (At 0:40s)

We should write a song about them. And I’ll believe every word.

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