Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

From the favourer: "The characters are as good and grotesque as real people and so honestly described (no-one could accuse Annie Proulx of sugar-coating anything), and the language is so dense and apt; I also find the book funny in places (eg the headline 'Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once Again') and I think that despite all the awfulness it's an optimistic book at heart."

Librarians have a tendency to read the title pages of books. I think it's an instinct born of excessive amounts of cataloguing, but you do come across some lovely subject headings (one of my favourites is "Rich people - Pet loss"). Note to aspiring novelists : if you want libraries to buy your book, get yerself an interesting title page. When I turned to the title page of The Shipping News, I discovered the disclaimer:

"This is a work of fiction. No resemblance is intended to living or dead persons, extant or failed newspapers, real government departments, specific towns or villages, actual roads or highways. The skiffs, trawlers and yachts, the upholstery needles, the logans, thumbies, and plates of cod cheeks, the bakeapples and those who pick them, the fish traps, the cats and dogs, the houses and seabirds described here are all fancies. The Newfoundland in this book, although salted with grains of truth, is an island of invention."

So basically I already like the book at this point.

Quoyle is a failure. He knows this because from very early on in life his father informed him of all his failings:

"failure to speak clearly; failure to sit up straight; failure to get up in the morning; failure in attitude; failure in ambition and ability; indeed, in everything...All stemmed from Quoyle's chief failure, a failure of normal appearance."

With negative self-esteem and a hulking, enormous body, Quoyle shuffles through life, finally ending up as a hack journalist for a crappy newspaper. Then one night he meets Petal - a sharp, shining-hot woman - and falls obsessively in love. For a while it seems that Quoyle's miserable failure of a life is about to be redeemed. Unfortunately, if Quoyle is a failure, then Petal is a bitch. She is "crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle." Petal is everywhere else with everyone else - flying to other countries with other men, disappearing with a new boyfriend every night. And hating Quoyle for his forgiveness and pleading, the frustrating way that he waits for her and her anger. To be honest, at this point I empathised with Petal just as much as I did Quoyle.

But one night Petal sells their two daughters, aged 6 and 4-and-a-half, to a porn film maker for $7000, and is killed almost immediately afterwards in a car crash. These final actions define her for the rest of the book. The girls are quickly recovered unharmed (though their buyer "clearly had something in mind"). Grasping desperately at the chance to start again, Quoyle uses Petal's life insurance payout to up stumps and head with his aunt and daughters to the Quoyle ancestral home in Newfoundland.

Now, at this point I stopped reading briefly and turned to check the blurb of this book again, just to ensure I wasn't delusional. Yes, it really does say: "The Shipping News is an irresistible comedy". I read it a few times, just to check. Yep, that's what it says.

Horrible events can overshadow happy ones in our lives. It is one of the many gifts of this book that Quoyle's new life in Newfoundland is such beautifully gradual path to something approximating happiness that even the reader doesn't consciously notice the change. It's a wonderfully plotted book in general, Proulx dropping revelations into the book piece by small piece, subtly building backstory and characterisation in a way that reflects that way we learn about people in our own lives. We don't get to know our friends and family through self-contained, block-capital outbursts (take note, Japanese Story). We know them though their instinctive reactions, jokes, uncensored facial expressions, gestures, overheard conversations, embarrassed confessions, drunken moments, and favourite episode of The Simpsons.

Despite my confusion over the book's blurb, which had me wondering if my copy had been misbound with the back jacket from another novel, this book is often very funny. I still think it's bizarre to term this book and 'irresistible comedy'; I think the humour is more subtle than that. It appears in the form of the darkly comic, the eccentric mis-en-scene, and the dry observation.

Like the favourer, I loved the way that Quoyle's newspaper-man training leads him to make headlines out of everyday life. My favourite is when Alvin Yark and Quoyle finally finish building Quoyle's boat. Yark has an annoying habit of singing a song under his breath to fill any silent moment in conversation:

"Yark half-sang his interminable ditty, 'Oh the Gandy Goose, it ain't no use, cause every nut and bolt is loose, she'll go to the bottom just like the Bruce, the Gandy Goose, and kill a NewfoundLANDER,' while he transferred the measurements to the rough boards.
'You'll 'ave your boat next Saddy. She'll be finished.'
Thank God, thought Quoyle. Man Escapes Endless Song."

But like all of Proulx's characters, even Yark isn't left solely as a point of humour. When the boat is finished, Yark's "mouth cracked open. Quoyle, guessing what was coming, got there first, roared 'Oh the Gandy Goose, it ain't no use,' sang it to the end, swelling the volume until the lugubrious tune took warmth from his hot throat. Old Yark believed it was a salute, embroidered stories for half an hour before he went up to his tea, the tune still warm in his ears as a hat from behind the stove."


But stays with you most about The Shipping News, as the favourer notes, is the language. Reading Proulx's prose is a little like being whacked in the face with something disgusting and interesting. Quoyle is described as "a great damp loaf of a body...Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic." What's the colour of plastic? I don't know, but it still makes me feel squirmy.

Her sentences are often brief and poetic in their immediacy, such that I sometimes read paragraphs as if they were poems, placing my own mental line breaks. It's a writing style that suits the setting of the book perfectly; her short phrases bunt against each other like boats in the harbour:

"Conscious of warping sea-damp, corrosive salt. A woman in a food-splotched bathrobe, hair the colour of sewage foam, sat on the sofa. Her hands clashed in bracelets, rings. Feet stretched out, blunt purple ankles."

It's a very effective form of description that could easily be overdone, but The Shipping News is hardly an example of style over substance. Like the favourer, I also found it an optimistic book at heart, and all the more moving for the relaltively small amounts of happiness required to shine out against what has come beforehand.

A book that lives up to its title page.

This book will be released into the wild in a week - but readers get first dibs! If you'd like this book, send me an email at and I'll post it to you.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this book when I read it. It must be about 10 years ago now. I loved the stories about the ancestors dragging the house by ropes than securing it to the rock to stop it blowing away. I didn't think Warrnambool was windy after reading that.

Colleen said...

Well, Anna, your blog is turning out to be very useful because now I know that I shall not read 'The Shipping News'! Not a book for me.

So, job well done Ms Reviewer.


Anna said...

Not sure if that's means I've done my job well done or not!