Monday 24 October 2011

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx (1993)

In my experience award winning novels are often disappointing. Whilst Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel, 2009) was an exercise in brilliance, the novel that won it in 2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson) was unrelentingly awful. Others have been dubious or puzzling, books chosen as some ironic joke played on readers. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx’s second novel, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994. Fortunately it is deserving of such a prize.

The Shipping News came into being after Proulx visited Newfoundland eight or nine times, eavesdropping on the locals in diners and bars and absorbing the ambience of the mostly harsh environs.  Apparently Proulx also fell asleep reading the Dictionary of Newfoundland English most nights for two years. The effort was worth it because The Shipping News is brilliantly written, full of rich adjectives that easily evoke images of strange people amongst a unique landscape. Despite Newfoundland’s obvious harsh weather, complete with a nine-month winter, the book actually tempted me to travel there to see it for myself.

The principle protagonist, Quoyle, is a pathetic anti-hero. Proulx makes it clear in the opening quote for the first chapter from The Ashley Book of Knots: “Quoyle – A coil of rope of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary”. This quote really does sum up the life of Quoyle that plays out in the opening sections of the book. The man with “ …the monstrous chin…” is unlucky in childhood, study, work and his love life. Petal, his wife, is perhaps the one character that flirts with caricature. She’s a real bitch, perhaps too much so, and Quoyle’s misery is extreme. Proulx really rams the point home. It’s a relief when she is dispensed with in memorable circumstances.

Once Proulx takes Quoyle to Newfoundland, his ancestral home, the novel settles into a slow arc leading to some kind of redemption for Quoyle. There’s the stoic figure of his aunt, his two daughters, a love interest and The Gammy Bird. As a relatively untalented journalist Quoyle ends up writing the shipping news at the Gammy Bird, an odd newspaper run by eccentric named individuals such as Tert Card, Nutbeem and Jack Buggit. All real names that Proulx dug up from Newfoundland phone directories and notice boards.

What kind of novel is The Shipping News? Indeed, what kind of novel wins the Pulitzer Prize? Well, it’s funny in an eccentric way. It’s realism but as narrated by someone whose worldview is eccentric - Proulx’s true voice or is it style? I can’t decide. The book is certainly not dramatic, although there are moments of drama. It’s not much of a romance, at least not in the traditional sense. Basically it’s a tale of personal redemption set amongst the mystery of the past and the hardship of the present.

There is much to admire, however I did find myself struggling to maintain an interest, particularly during the middle section of the book. It just didn’t engage me in the way that I enjoy. I think that this is more of a matter of taste rather than an inherent fault with the book itself. The novel is slow moving but many works of art that unfold slowly are extremely rewarding. Essentially The Shipping News is great literature, but just how much you enjoy it is down to a matter of taste.

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