Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx


Ever since we bought our home in Nova Scotia, people have asked me if I've read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.   This question makes me laugh.  The Shipping News is set in Newfoundland which, although a Maritime province, is definitively not Nova Scotia.  I say this with great confidence notwithstanding that all that I know about Newfoundland is that (i) it's supposed to be very beautiful, if isolated, and (ii) when you forget to pull your fenders up on your boat after you leave the dock, people say you're acting like a "Newfie."   (Our friend Paul, who is from Newfoundland, does not like this one bit.)  Nontheless, the book has been on my "to read" list for a few years now, so I finally gave it a whirl.

Let me say at the outset that I hate the way this book is written.  Proulx frequently writes in incomplete sentences and her sentences that are complete are often awkward in the extreme.  It's almost like she's writing in a dialect.  (Maybe books about the Maritimes lend themselves to being written in dialect.  Rockbound, the 1928 work by Frank Parker Day about life on Iron Bound, is another example.)    On the first page of the book, she introduces us to Quoyle, the protagonist:  "Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence."   It took about all I had in me to persevere after that beginning, but over time the story grew on me and I found myself wondering what was going to happen next.

After a few chapters that set the stage for Quoyle's move with his two young daughters and "the" Aunt from upstate New York to Killick-Claw, the story -- and Quoyle -- settle in to life in Newfoundland.   Quoyle has made his living writing for a paper although he seems to have no talent to distill a story into the kernel that people will find of interest.  (The exception is when he thinks about his personal life, which he does in headlines, never in a flattering or happy way.  For instance, Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once More or Man Lukewarm on Ancestral Home Way Out on the Point.)   He manages to get hired by the Gammy Bird, a weekly newspaper put out by a bunch of old timers who punctuate their sentences with a pirately "Yar" from time to time.  Quoyle is given the job of writing about the shipping news, an ironic assignment for someone who doesn't know how to swim and has never been on a boat.   I had to laugh--ruefully--at one conversation between Quoyle and a colleague about boats.  "You may think that the equation is 'boat and water.'  It's not.  It's 'money and boat.'  The water is not really necessary..."  Over time, Quoyle expands his beat from reporting about the ships coming into port to tell the stories behind the vessels, which he writes about with a newfound elegance.

The characters in this book are characters in the truest sense of the word.  They are unlike any people I've ever encountered (with the possible exception of the folks who run Munsey's Bear Camp in Kodiak, Alaska).   Their resilience and self-sufficiency is remarkable and is exceeded only by their eccentricity.  But just when you least expect it, a pearl of wisdom will turn up.  At one point, Quoyle is worried about his daughter Bunny who suffers from nightmares and seems in a world all her own.  Quoyle talks with the Aunt about his concerns, who tries to assuage his fears by saying, "I agree with you that she's different....but you know, we're all different though we may pretend otherwise.  We're all strange inside.  We learn how to disguise our differentness as we grow up.  Bunny doesn't do that yet." 

Proulx entitles each chapter with the name of a knot and gives a short definition.  The knot that she's chosen cleverly anticipates how the story will unfold in that chapter.  Take for instance Chapter 3, which is entitled, "Strangle Knot."  Per the Ashley Book of Knots, "The strangle knot will hold a coil well. . . .  It is first tied loosely and then worked snug."   You can imagine that the events in Chapter 3 were not an occasion for celebration.

The story meanders about until it comes to a fairly natural stopping point.  I was ready for the book to end and to get on to something a bit more conventional.  In the words of the reviewer at the Boston Sunday Globe, The Shipping News is "strikingly original."   It won both the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1993 National Book Award for Fiction.  I can understand the acclaim, but this doesn't make it a fan favorite with me.   Maybe this is one instance when I should have opted for the movie version (starring Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Dame Judi Dench as the Aunt and Julianne Moore as "the tall and quiet woman".)   Time to update my Netflix queue!

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