Friday, July 1, 2011

Annie Proulx--The Shipping News

I've never read Proulx before, or even seen the movie of Brokeback Mountain.  I admit to being a bit disappointed by this introduction to her work.
The novel won both the 1993 National Book Award as well as the 1994 Pulitzer.  It tells the story of Quoyle, who after losing his parents to suicide and his philandering wife Petal to a car accident, moves his two daughters and his aunt back to Quoyle’s Point in Newfoundland, where he works for the local paper, writing up car accidents and the shipping news.
Each chapter begins with a definition of a kind of knot or other nautical information.  Quoyle, as a newspaperman, responds to his life events (usually of some level of tragedy) in his thoughts by giving them headlines, such as “Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once More.” 
I don’t quite understand why this won so many awards.  Housekeeping is much more beautifully written, and was only a finalist for the Pulitzer.  In addition to the general theme of misery in the novel, I find some of Proulx's description to be rather awkward.  However, over the course of the novel, a general theme of the seeming randomness of why some survive and others don’t seems to emerge.  Particularly when Billy Pretty takes Quoyle to Gaze Island and tells him the story of his father’s being orphaned and shipwrecked and ending up in Newfoundland—by this point in the novel, about halfway through, the idea of survival despite a hostile environment is strong.  Proulx’s novel in many ways hearkens back to a Jack London kind of realism, man alone in a hostile environment.  Proulx’s novel, however, combines this harsh realism with the idea of familial roots—how do roots in a hostile environment hold?  Such a harsh place of stubborn individualism requires a certain kind of community—as Billy Pretty says, “No, they didn’t have any money, the sea was dangerous and men were lost, but it was a satisfying life in a way people today do not understand.  There was a joinery of lives all worked together, smooth in places, or lumpy, but joined.  The work and the living you did was the same thing, not separated out like today” (169).
It ends with Quoyle finding love with Wavey: “It may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery” (336).  Quoyle finds a way to survive through the ice floes of tragedy which surround life in Newfoundland.  It’s not my favorite—much of the metaphor is way too heavy-handed for me, such as Quoyle’s comparison of love to a box of chocolates.  To be fair, the movie of Forrest Gump didn’t come out until 1994, so this metaphor probably wasn’t nearly as tired when she wrote it, but it’s still rather typical of the kind of metaphors the book often engages in.  I was more intrigued by the elements of magic or at least the uncanny—the bewitching knots that Quoyle’s cousin with dementia left about or his daughter Bunny’s prescience.  They were acknowledged as somewhat credible—Bunny more than the cousin—but more tangential to Quoyle’s larger search for a way to live in the world.

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