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The Shipping News ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1994)

To a certain degree, though certainly not to the degree that they imagine, novelists are gods.  For the duration of their story, they get to control all of the events, to manipulate characters lives, to bring about natural disasters, to mete out life and death.  Within the context of the tale, they are the Creator--omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.  Now one of the most mystifying aspects of God, and a frequently raised objection to belief in him, is his willingness to allow bad things to happen to good people.  We are understandably disconcerted by the idea that the Supreme Being does not intervene to make our lives peaches and cream. But why don't we ever ask why authors decide to have such horrible things to their characters?  Surely if we're going to hold God responsible for every bad thing that happens to us, it's fair to ask why authors torture their own creations.  I mention all of this because Annie Proulx's Shipping News seems to me to represent a signal example of an author who really doesn't much like her characters.

The book (which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the 1993 National Book Award for Fiction
and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize) relates the misadventures of Quoyle, a loser of epic proportions.  A third-rate newspaperman, but then he's not good at anything else either, upon the death of his slatternly wife he takes his daughters to Killick-Claw, Newfoundland to live with a maiden aunt.  There he writes the Shipping News column for the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, and endures the horrible weather and the bizarre quirks of coworkers and neighbors.  If you think serial adultery, incest, sexual molestation of children, car wrecks and the like are the staff of life, this is the book for you.  I found it all pretty tedious and despite Ms Proulx's skillful utilization of a novel setting, local slang and lyrical prose, by the time the characters actually achieved some kind of personal breakthroughs she had lost my interest.  After all, when an author takes such obvious pleasure in making her characters' lives miserable, it's hard for a reader to muster much empathy for them.

Dorothy C. Judd's review:
When I saw that Orrin had given only a C- to Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, I had to write a rebuttal because I really liked the book and would give it  an A.

Orrin asks why authors have horrible things happen to their characters.  Hey,  that's life; perhaps I've just seen more of it, but when people confide their secrets, you hear lots of horrible stories. In my opinion writing that does not reflect this is fantasy. He accuses Proulx of disliking her characters, but again I disagree. She likes Quoyle and Wavey enough to let them grow past their horrible experiences and find love.  I find that  amazingly hopeful:

    For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away,
    what else might be possible?  Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat's blood,
    mountaintops give off cold fire, forest appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught
    with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string.  And
    it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

I was cheering when Quoyle, a bumbling goodhearted oaf, finally realized the truth of that last sentence.  It is a triumphant moment when he and Wavey let go of the romanticized versions of their former mates and admit to themselves and each other the truth, at last freeing themselves to love.

At first I found Proulx's style off-putting, especially the staccato of two or three word sentence fragments. However, I was quickly won over by her powers of description and her wonderful sense of humor. I laughed out loud at Quoyle's thought headlines, at Dawn's job queries, at the scene where Quoyle and his family are stuck in the motel room, at "Oh, go spell 'pterodactyl'"  The newspaper itself is at once sad and hilarious.

I wondered how Proulx knew so much about knots and discovered that research is one of the most important parts of her writing.  She picks up books at yard sales and secondhand bookstores and uses the information in these to inspire her own books rich in authentic detail. I did not always see the connection between the knot and the chapter, but some day I intend to take the time to do that.

December 24th is my favorite day of the year: the wrapped presents sit in shining array under the tree, each holding a carefully selected present which just may be the perfect gift.  Perhaps there is a perfect gift waiting there for me.  I call this time the space of possibility: it could all still happen, it could all still turn out right.  This space of possibility is a recurring theme in the book, and perhaps that is why The Shipping News is one of my favorites. On page 11 Proulx notes, "A spinning coin, still balanced on its rim, may fall in either direction."  No matter what happened, my mother used to say, "Everything will be all right," and I always believed her.  Even now in that moment before the coin
falls, it really seems like everything will be all right.


Orrin responds:
Far be it from me to pick a fight with my own blessed mother, but I believe that the difference in our reviews is a perfect illustration of the political dichotomy between the genders.  It is said that a liberal views life as a tragedy, a conservative views it as a comedy.  And, of course, as I've often discussed in these pages, women are fundamentally liberal and men are constitutionally conservative.  So when I dismiss the book for picking at the emotional scabs of weak willed characters and say that I lost interest in them, I am merely displaying my own phallocentric prejudices.  I can not respect Quoyle who blithely suffers through serial cuckolding and mopes around longing for this trollop of a wife even after her death.  His essential passivity and acceptance of "fate" are anathema to everything I believe in.  Grab the bull by the horns and change your own life or don't come crying to me.  Our freedom as human beings is a privilege, but it imposes a responsibility.  You have to take care of yourself and improve your own life.

On the other hand, women do actually believe that life in general is like Quoyle's, that is why they support government intervention in all of our lives.   In the ideal gyneocracy, there would be government programs to help Quoyle get over his lost love, help him raise his daughters, get a better job, move somewhere else, etc.  In general, women assume that life is so difficult and unpleasant that we shouldn't expect to be able to survive on our own.  Thus, Quoyle's miserable existence is not even his own fault; he is merely playing the hand that was dealt him as best he can.  Women are more sympathetic than men precisely because they believe that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the inherent attraction of the female world view.  I disagree with it, but I appreciate its powerful narrative strength.  Which of us has not felt the need for help at some point, or even often, in our lives?  We have so many relationships with more powerful people and institutions it is easy to see why folks would want the government, that ultimate institutional power, on their side.   But at the same time, continued belief in this ideology seems to be rendered increasingly dubious by recent events and trends.  Despite the still bloated size of our domestic government, a repressive skein of regulations and a confiscatory tax system; despite the Chinese intransigence which keeps a quarter of the world's population subjugated by an authoritarian regime; despite the virtual kleptocracy in much of the Third World; and despite the basically socialized economies of Europe; we are living in the greatest epoch of freedom in man's history.  Never before have so many people had so much control over their own economic and political destinies.  And the result?  Predictably in my view, we are experiencing the greatest expansion of wealth and the highest levels of living standards in human history.  Turns out that greater freedom and greater comfort appear to have a pretty strong correlation.  And you know what?  Life is good.  As many of us suspected all along, the Quoyles of the world simply need to marry better, work harder and stop moping.


Grade: (C-)


E. Annie Proulx Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Annie Proulx
-ESSAY: Annie Proulx on the Lost Ecological Paradise of the English Fenlands: A Story of a Tearing the Infinitely Complex Web of Life (Annie Proulx, September 27, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Annie Proulx on climate loss: In New Hampshire forests, the threat of ash annihilation looms (Annie Proulx, 10/27/21, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of William Golding’s Rites of Passage (Annie Proulx, Lit Hub)

Book-related and General Links:
    -SHORT STORY: The Half-Skinned Steer by E. Annie Proulx (The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Books On Top (E. Annie Proulx, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Some Like it Hot (E. Annie Proulx, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW: of THE STRANGE DEATH OF MISTRESS COFFIN By Robert J. Begiebing (E. Annie Proulx, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with E. Annie Proulx (November 12, 1997, The Atlantic)
    -DISCUSSION: A Literary Perspective--Elizabeth Farnsworth discuses what the election should be about with various authors Proulx, Gish Jen, Charles Johnson,  Winston Groom (The Newshour, PBS)
    -AWARD: Proulx and Vidal Win American Book Awards (SARAH LYALL, NY Times)
    -AWARD: Book Notes; Shutout Ends: It's Men 12, Women 1 (ESTHER B. FEIN, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: AT HOME WITH: E. Annie Proulx; At Midlife, a Novelist Is Born (SARA RIMER, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: NO FOAM CUPS (Collage)
    -ESSAY: Annie Proulx's Musicology (Graeme Smith)
    -WEBRARY : 1995 Book Discussions: The Shipping News
    -REVIEW: of THE SHIPPING NEWS By E. Annie Proulx (Howard Norman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Newfoundland Studies Journal Review of The Shipping News:  A Newfoundland perspective.
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW: Proulx, E. Annie The Shipping News (Jan Marta, Medical Humanities, NYU)
    -REVIEW: of CLOSE RANGE Wyoming Stories By Annie Proulx Illustrated by William Matthew (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of CLOSE RANGE Wyoming Stories By Annie Proulx Illustrated by William Matthew (Richard Eder, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Close Range (The Romance Reader)
    -REVIEW: of Close Range Living the cowboy way:  Annie Proulx offers engaging tales from the range (Melissa Malouf, Raleigh News & Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Close Range Few Have Ridden Fences Between The Western And Literary Fiction Genres As Expertly As Annie Proulx, And 'Close Range' Is No Exception (Jim Carvalho, Tucson Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of ACCORDION CRIMES By E. Annie Proulx (Walter Kendrick, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ACCORDION CRIMES By E. Annie Proulx ( (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: BookPage Fiction Review: Accordion Crimes (Ellen Kanner)
    -REVIEW: of Accordion Crimes  A Very Bad Marriage: Tunes of the victims of our melting pot myth? (Suzanne Baker, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW: of POSTCARDS By E. Annie Proulx (David Bradley, NY Times Book Review)
    -Mostly Fiction: recommended books by E. Annie Proulx