Book Review — The Shipping News (1993) by Annie Proulx

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

There are some rare books that people seem almost universally to agree are excellent. Because of just such agreement, I thought I was in for a sure thing when I picked up The Shipping News. And I guess I got one. At one level, this book is damned decent. But you know you’ve signed yourself up for some strongly worded disagreements when you roll your eyes at the last line of a book. I hope to explain myself clearly enough that “haters gon’ hate” cannot be justly applied as a response to this review, but we’ll see how that goes. I can be petty.

First things first, Quoyle, the protagonist, is a giant, shy man with a huge jaw who is utterly without luck. He has a brutal upbringing, followed by a vile marriage, throughout both of which he is walked on, and then by a twist of fate he is whisked away (with his two young daughters, Sunshine and Bunny), by a heretofore unknown aunt, to the isle of Newfoundland, where everything is ice, hardship and mangy insanity. There he becomes a newspaperman – as Proulx would say: “Writes the shipping news.”

Proulx has always written in accordance with the theory of “geographic determinism“, that is, that human behaviour is informed by and reflects the landscape. The most famous example of this in her writing is the blossoming of love between the cowboys Ennis and Jack in her short story Brokeback Mountain. It is no coincidence that their romance begins high in the Wyoming mountains, far from human society, in the unbounded beauty of an alpine summer. Her writing in the short story reflects this place, and the place informs the love first allowed there.

The same can be said of the cold, abusive land and life in which Quoyle writes the shipping news, and into which Proulx writes him. Short, fragmented sentences abound, the obvious intention being to drill home the blistering quality of life on our human and inhumane planet, just as the non-fragments are meant to tinge that impression with a harsh but ultimately forgiving beauty. The craft is evident, in the same way that Hillary Mantel’s prose in Wolf Hall is evidently crafted, and it has purpose.

Now I don’t like the cold, and while that may seem superficial, this book is relentlessly bitter: beyond the weather, there is the food, the failures, the smells, the acts that people commit, the rifeness of sexual abuse and violent criminality that never cuts it as “darkly comical”, and most especially the palpable absence of human warmth outside of Quoyle himself (who, it must be said, is a lovely protagonist and character).

The book is full of clever contradictions. Between never-ending monologues, fish gutting and seal shooting, every nutter in Newfoundland is preoccupied with the lunacy of someone else’s forbears. They bemoan the encroachment of a valueless modern world on their rustic way of life even as they compile reports on the latest flaming car wreck, hot-blooded murder or spate of child sexual abuse, all of which seem to be in rich abundance. While clever, none of these contradictions are pleasant. They are grating, frost-bitten cruelties nailed to a rock populated by sad maniacs.

Essentially, everything Proulx did with tool-like precision to create “cold”, I hated, and yet, there can be a respect in hatred. Only a great writer could make you react so strongly. The problem came when it mattered most, in the delivery of the aforementioned moments of forgiving beauty. Along the way, I found none. In truth, I was waiting until the last page to find out whether or not this book would win me, but when redemption came, I didn’t buy it for a second.

When love goes wrong for Ennis and Jack in Wyoming, the giddy heights are matched perfectly by the decline of their relationship. Proulx manages this decline with the control of a writer who knew that she was writing a tragedy from the very first word. This same gift for arc is not present in The Shipping News. Here, the forgiveness of Quoyle, his ascent into a new and unsavage life, is an afterthought, tacked on in the last fifty pages like a publisher’s insistence that the book have a happy ending, when the first draft had Quoyle blown away in a freak storm.

As for characters, Quoyle’s aunt, after making an impression, vanishes from significance to the narrative at about the book’s halfway point. More importantly, Quoyle’s love interest, Wavey Prowse, is never realised fully enough to make love significant, or even believable. Very early on in the novel, the outcomes are foreseeable – from nothing, something will come. Quoyle, who has been browbeaten by life beyond all likelihood, will find a quiet, thawing redemption in the northern wastelands. But in Wavey Prowse, all Quoyle seems to find is an alluring stranger, followed by a kind of closure so simple and quick as to be borderline insipid. In fact, this book is populated with strangers. Even Quoyle’s children remain enigmatic, such that when I heard they were combined into a single character in the movie adaptation, I thought, “No great loss.” I don’t know that I have ever thought that about a movie adaptation.

Throughout the book, Proulx writes to reflect both Quoyle and Newfoundland. Reflecting Quoyle, the prose is interior and momentary – Quoyle finding a neck vein in a bowl of turkey soup, or laying his hand on a can of peanuts as he contemplates his wife’s infidelities. Reflecting Newfoundland, it is ragged and immediate, often with an intensity of imagery, punctuation and lexicon that sends a gust of discomfort in the reader’s direction, or forces them to chew on a sentence, feeling the rough pit in the middle of it. Which is all well and good. A story like this will inevitably thaw and give something. But by the time it did, the reward felt like nothing, like ice that had only pretended to thaw. Or if it had thawed, had not really wanted to. Or, more unfortunately still, had just not understood how thawing works.

Perhaps Proulx is just better at breaking people’s hearts than she is at mending them.

The No Man’s Land Reading Project so far:
#1: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler
#2: Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell
#3: The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin
#4: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
#5: The Tall Man (2008) by Chloe Hooper
#6 The Watch Tower (1966) by Elizabeth Harrower
#7 The Autograph Man (2002) by Zadie Smith
#8 The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
#9 The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt
#10 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Brontë
#11 The Strays (2014) by Emily Bitto
#12 The Slow Natives (1965) by Thea Astley

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