I fell shamefully in love with The Shipping News this spring. My husband watched the movie when I was at the winter MFA residency and then we watched it together when I came back. Then I found it at a used book sale and found a reason to add the book to my reading list for the spring semester. It is a beautiful novel, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Proulx’s other work: Postcards, and Close Range: Wyoming Stories. That last title contains the short story which was the basis for Brokeback Mountain.
Below the break is the craft essay I wrote about The Shipping News for grad school.
After reading much of John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, I believe that Gardner might have enjoyed the work of E. Annie Proulx. Her poetic prose, the ebb and flow of her sentences and the way she chooses names for her places and characters, would I think, have grabbed him.
In The Shipping News, Proulx delivers a lyrical approach to what could have been a mundane story: An unfortunate man, down on his luck, discovers a sense of self and a purpose after moving to his ancestral home and reconnecting with his family. The bare bones of the story represent a basic tale of redemption, the sort endlessly presented to us in romantic comedies and every genre of fiction. Proulx tweaks the formula a little; her protagonist is “going home” to a place he’s never actually been, and that place isn’t just a town, it’s the island of Newfoundland. But what raises this particular story from mere redemption tale to the status of myth or legend is the way Proulx writes.
Her prose is presented in an almost oral style, and she gives her characters names that make them larger than life. They are not men and women, they are archetypes. The protagonist, Quoyle, is never called by his first name. He is Quoyle, the last of the wild, criminal Quoyles, a clan of pirates and inbreds, so awful that there are geographical features named for them. As the last male of the family, Quoyle’s homecoming represents not only his personal redemption, but the rehabilitation of the entire bloodline. Wavey Prowse, Quoyle’s love interest, is actually presented to the reader as an archetype (The Tall and Quiet Woman) before she is introduced as a person.
Proulx’s prose is rich, and gives the impression of having been written with a large vocabulary, although on closer inspection, many of the words are very ordinary. After re-reading sections of the book a third time, I find that the novel was indeed written with a large vocabulary, but in this case Proulx’s arsenal included a lot of very specific words. This is an approach espoused by Gardner, who in The Art of Fiction, advises writers to add texture to prose by using the names of everyday items.
Ordinary words, like rare words, give textural interest. The good writer is likely to know and use — or find out and use — the words for common architectural features, like “lintel,” “newel post,” “corbelling,” “abutment,” and the concrete or stone “hems” alongside the steps leading up into churches or public buildings. ; the names of carpenters’ or plumbers’ tools, artists’ materials, or whatever furniture, implements, or processes his characters work with; and the names of common household items, including those we do not usually hear named, such as “pinch-clippers” (for cutting fingernails). P. 147
Proulx does this with all things nautical. Shipping News is salted with fishing implements, boats, docks; anything and everything to do with the sea. She goes beyond skippers and skiffs and shipwrecks to introduce words like “tomcod” (a small cod) and wracker (a pirate) to the reader. Almost every chapter is topped with an excerpt from The Ashley Book of Knots.
Proulx also names certain of her characters maritime names. For examples, look at Wavey Prowse and Quoyle himself; “quoyle” is an archaic spelling for “coil,” as well as — according to knot guru Clifford Ashley — a name for a coil of rope tied in such a way that it lies flay on a boat’s deck, and can safely be walked on.
The other characters — Billy Pretty, Beety Buggit, Petal, Bunny, Tert Card, Agnis Hamm – all have vivid names that add to the texture of the story.
None of this over-the-top folksiness distracted me from what Steinbeck calls “the fictional dream.” Nor did the dialogue, some of which is written in dialect:
“Agnis have a manly heart, Agnis do… A boldish air, she grasp on things like a man do.” p.179)
Such dialogue added a musical quality to the prose, which was already musical in itself. The Shipping News breaks many of the rules taught to writers, using sentence fragments and one-word sentences freely throughout the whole of the book, interspersing the short sentences with run-ons and switching points of view intermittently throughout the novel.
It is an approach, once again approved of by Gardner, as long as it works. He advocates long sentences, driven by emotion, and short ones, which can be punchy, or denote weariness, or “increase the drabness of a drab scene.” (pp. 148-9)
“In good prose ,” he writes in a section about poetic rhythm in prose, “rhythm never stumbles, slips into accidental doggerel, or works against the meaning of the sentence.” (p. 152.)
Proulx’s novel is extremely lyrical throughout, but I think the most poetic parts come at the beginning of the work, when Quoyle is miserable, and unable to communicate with other people. The sentences here are very short, increasing the reader’s understanding of dreariness of Quoyle’s life and the limited ability he has to express his own misery.
The aunt, in a black and white checked pantsuit, sat on the sofa, listened to Quoyle choke and sob. Made tea in the never-used pot. A stiff-figured woman, gingery hair streaked with white. Presented a profile like a target in a shooting gallery. A buff mole on her neck. Swirled the tea around in the pot, poured, dribbled milk. Her coat, bent over the arm of the sofa, resembled a wine steward showing a label. (p. 23)
The above paragraph caused my word processor’s spell check software to offer two grammatical suggestions regarding the use of sentence fragments. But when I read the passage in the book, the sentence fragments never jarred me from the story. Rather, they buoyed me along, through Quoyle’s grief, and on to the next page.
I guess you can tell by now that I enjoyed The Shipping News. It was, for me, a sailor’s yarn; a long lyrical experience which told a story worth hearing. Like a yarn, sometimes it was a little gossipy, and sometimes it was bogged down by a thick accent, and often I didn’t understand the nautical jargon. But it was always beautiful, and I was sorry when it was over.