The Shipping News – (E) Annie Proulx

8 May 2009
Chapters 1-7
I can’t remember when she stopped calling herself E Annie. I can’t remember when I first read this novel either, easily her most successful. Mid-90s some time, when everybody read it and mostly seemed to like it. I did, and I’m re-reading it to try and remind myself why I did.

Is it an entertainment, or does it have a serious purpose? Are these two mutually exclusive? I remember Quoyle from the first time because Proulx has made him memorable. Physically he’s a badly designed brick shit-house with a novelty chin. Emotionally, at the beginning of the novel at least, he’s stuck in a painfully self-conscious adolescence. He’s in his thirties, for god’s sake. Proulx doesn’t spend a lot of time on the joke of a marriage that lands him first with a no-good wife, then as a widower with young daughters. Petal, the wife… well, let’s just say she‘s a pantomime monster to go with the pantomime name. (Their daughters have pantomime names as well, but more of them in a minute.) In case we don’t get it, Proulx has her trying to sell the girls into slavery. Really, she’s only there to give Quoyle a hard time and to get herself killed so he can use the insurance money to get outta here.

It’s the stuff of a particular brand of American comic writing, like Carl Hiassen: we don’t have to believe it, so long as we care. And we do care. There’s something about the vulnerability of this oversized man who finds himself, after a life spent in go-nowhere jobs, booking into the motel from comedy hell, taking over an almost derelict ancestral house (more of that later) and ending up at a two-bit local newspaper staffed by human flotsam…. But if Proulx is a comic writer (and I’m not absolutely sure she is), she does non-comic writing better. She goes in for no-nonsense clipped: stubby sentences that get down to business without wasting time on fancy stuff like verbs. It’s effective because it matches the male, hands-on, working-for-a-living maritime world Quoyle washes up in. And it goes with the epigraphs of the chapters, quotations from sailors’ lore like a kind of literary chandlery. It’s like snippets of Moby Dick, but with a wry twist.

There’s seriousness, on a kind of sliding scale. Death is always lurking around the edges: we’ve heard about an ancestor killed unloading cargo, a local who was too drunk to keep his snowmobile on thick enough ice and went under – and the newspaper that always has pictures of car wrecks on its front page, even if there haven’t been any this week. Routine deaths are just part of the no-nonsense texture of the novel, except for the one time when it’s important to the plot. But even Petal’s death is described coolly: we don’t care about her fatal crash with her latest lover, because Proulx makes sure we don’t. There’s a clever mismatch between the almost comic death and the devastating effect it has on Quoyle. And there’s black comedy in the idea that one of his first roles will be to cover the car wreck stories in his new job. But it’s not all that black: we know he’ll get over it. Sure, he’s got to a lot to learn… after seven chapters, we assume that’s what the novel’s going to be about.

What else? Proulx gets him and his girls to Newfoundland through the benign interference of his aunt. She’s old-school and – who knows? – might actually help to put right the mis-education of his wayward daughters. The house she has him drive them all to is bonkers, strapped to the landscape like something from a fairy-tale. But whenever Proulx brings in something outrageous like this, she does that topography/ meteorology/ atmospherics thing she’s so good at, and we believe it. That’s what I remember most about this book: she does location better than anyone else I know. Together with all the hands-on stuff that fills the characters’ experience and the stories told by the people Quoyle meets we’re taken to a world in which, however far it is from anything we know, feels real enough to touch.

13 May
Chapters 8-18
It’s very assured. Newfoundland is constantly there – although, now I think of it, Proulx doesn’t particularly do topographical description. Instead, we get the imperatives of life there: the need to batten down, the need to get out on the water (because roads are an afterthought, not the main way to get about), the sense that this is life on the edge where, if you‘re going to survive, you can‘t take anything for granted. And this is the summer, for god’s sake.

Two months have passed. Proulx focuses on details rather than on any attempted descriptions of, say, Quoyle’s working week. Details like the repair of the roof – Quoyle a million miles from where he might feel comfortable – or his first time in the atrocious boat he stupidly (and unfeasibly) buys. In fact that’s the terrain of the novel for me: concretely real moments in a fairly sketchy landscape. But this leaves plenty of space for Proulx to entertain us with travellers’ tales like Nutbeem’s and those of the unspeakable owners of the Hitler yacht… or cautionary tales from the locals, usually involving death or horrible injury… or a growing current of other-worldliness, like the tale of the father who just knew where his son had been shipwrecked – and like ‘the aunt’s’ suspicion that Bunny has a touch of the Quoyles’ gift of second sight. There was a point during these chapters when I thought, yarns. It isn’t magic realism, just Proulx’s take on the stuff of a hard-bitten, isolated community’s shared culture in which superstition is at least as plausible as anything thought up by government-sponsored science.

Despite all its surface grittiness, the narrative is gentle. So, slowly, Quoyle starts to become the man he’s always had the potential to be. He’s a father, but now (with the aunt’s help) he’s more assertive, less willing to let his daughters walk all over him like his wife did. He looks after them, particularly the vulnerable Bunny: when she is about to step on to the dangerous roof he saves her; he watches her over-active imagination wind her up to a worrying pitch of anxiety and, well, worries about her. (It’s no comfort that the white dog she constantly conjures up, waiting for her around every corner, is seen by the aunt as having a possible reality beyond the ken of ordinary folk.) And, most slowly of all, he begins to get over Petal. He’s even noticed Wavey – my, how Annie loves those comedy names – and suffers when the aunt invites a different and totally unsuitable alternative possible girlfriend to dinner. (Wavey offers Proulx the chance to explore the theme of parental concern from a different angle: she has a Downs Syndrome son she insists on treating as normal, a radical step in those parts.)

And… and that’s it, really. Once Proulx has set Quoyle in motion, he just keeps right on moving. He’s even taken the initiative in his writing for the paper – and, for the first time in his life, has been praised for an idea he’s had. This is his own take on The Shipping News so, something beyond a third of the way through the novel, we know something important has happened. It’s one of the novel’s low-key epiphanies, like the fiercely beautiful iceberg Quoyle has to steer around in the boat he is now becoming more confident with. Proulx wants to take us to a place where there‘s definitely a kindly god in his heaven. How can we resist?

17 May
Chapters 19-25
We know we must be getting well into the second half of the novel when the main character starts to get over certain… hurdles. In the last couple of chapters he’s made a move on Wavey at last – not that she’s having any of it, being still traumatised by the death of her husband about 15 years before… and he’s not really over Petal either, come to think of it – and he’s had a go at the managing editor of the newspaper for mauling his latest article. Ok. What we’re getting is Quoyle learning to behave, during the four or five months he’s been in Newfoundland, in a way that would have been inconceivable before. Proulx gets away with it because she only sketched in his previous existence, and character, in relatively few pages. So we know the old Quoyle is downtrodden, but we’re ok with the new Quoyle not really being downtrodden at all because, well, we don‘t want him to be a loser all his life.

We’ve also had a couple of set-piece location chapters, taking in the rock-strewn waters around the island, the now deserted Gaze Island, a terrifying encounter with fog, and the niceties of getting to land via narrow cleft-like ‘tickles’. That’s all good – and along the way we get some family background for Quoyle – it turns out he’s from relentlessly villainous line of wreckers and murderers, ho ho – and we he’s found a head in a washed-up suitcase. The head belongs, or used to, to Melville – no, not the Melville, we’ve been through all that – who was the owner of the Hitler yacht. Everybody assumes he’s been murdered by his hateful wife, but… but just listen to me, talking about all this plot. In fact, as soon as Proulx starts that particular thread she drops it again. Sure, Quoyle is a bit knocked back by his discovery for a couple of days, but Proulx is more interested in developing his character, not some mystery plotline. Except… I’ve just remembered another bit of plot: Billy Pretty, the old man who took Quoyle on his boat-trip, has mentioned a distant relative who thinks he might have a claim on the house, And a mysterious stranger has been noticed lurking around….

Not a lot else, for now. Bunny’s started school and likes it, the woman who works with the aunt (the one she tried to get Quoyle off with) writes comedy application letters for jobs she hasn’t a hope of getting, Quoyle and the aunt carry on doing up the barmy old house – dragged across the ice, we’ve recently found out, from a different island decades ago: the past, in this novel, really is a different country. Nearly as different as Newfoundland, if you see what I’m saying.

20 May
Chapter 26 to part-way through Chapter 34
To Christmas morning, in fact, a good enough place to pause with over four-fifths of the novel gone and a sense of things – some things anyway – coming to an end. Nutbeem and Tert Card, for instance: their time is up at the newspaper. Quoyle’s rubbish boat, and Nutbeem’s crazy-looking one, are both at the bottom of the sea. During the winter, Quoyle and his girls are out of the bonkers house, and the aunt has moved to another town….

The chapter in which Quoyle loses his boat – and nearly drowns – is another set piece of superb topographical writing. (Is there another word? It’s like travel writing, but you don’t have to travel; it’s a description of the experience of being in a particular place under a particular set of circumstances.) Quoyle goes for a walk to the headland – this is before everything freezes up – and sees a floating corpse that has been carried near there by the currents. He decides to take his boat into town for help, ends up in the water when a big wave sinks it, and is only saved by his body fat and the sixth sense of the bloke we already know about. And guess what – the corpse is headless and goes with the head Quoyle found a couple of chapters before. (And it’s in pieces in a kind of storm-suit, but never mind all that.) So what’s all that about? Proulx shoving Quoyle to the extremes of life’s experiences, part of his unsentimental education to go with all the other things he’s had to go through in the past few months?

These chapters confirm how effective his education has been, as though Newfoundland is able to provide what nothing in his first 30-odd years was able to. If things are wrong, he does his best to put them right: he does what he needs to – including talking to Wavey and her boat-builder uncle – to get a proper boat; he goes to see the barmy old relative who has been leaving Blair Witch-type knotted totems around the place; he carries on being friendly with Wavey, but is patient, patient…. At the same time, he has become enough a part of the scenery for people to help him. In Killick Claw they know about neighbourliness – the star of the Christmas show satirises people’s foibles, and everybody recognises them – and if it’s sentimentalised, well, we’re ok with that. Maybe we‘re jealous.

Proulx is careful to counterbalance the sentiment. We get Nutbeem’s list of a typical week’s paedophile activity, the newspaper’s new line in boat-wrecks to add to the car-wrecks, just to get in the readers, the small-mindedness of the old relative – and we have a chapter of mindless blokeish destruction, the trashing of Nutbeem’s boat a few days before he is supposed to be leaving. Yet, somehow, this is all ok. Their ways aren’t our ways, and Proulx seems to want to make the experience of reading about these people as weird as it is for Quoyle to live in their midst. I suppose it is travel writing after all.

28 May
Chapter 34 (cont) to the end
This is one of the most carefully – what? – finished novels I’ve ever read. The sense of things coming to an end began with about ten chapters left to go (as I’ve already said) and this last part is full of things reaching a satisfactory completion. The two most obvious are related, in more than one sense of the word: Quoyle and Wavey finally coming together; and Quoyle’s new boat, which Quoyle serenades with the tuneless song that Wavey’s uncle constantly hummed during the building of it. There’s another, more frankly symbolic ending as well: the barmy, ill-omened house gets blown away in a freak storm, and Proulx insists on giving it a fairy-tale twist as Bunny, the one who really is gifted with second sight, sees it in her dreams as it happens and the mad (or is he?) relative claims the credit for raising the storm with his knotted bits of string. Proulx is happy to relate these as part of the reality of life on the magic island.

So. It’s no surprise that the novel’s long final sentence is a more-things-in-heaven-and-earth paean to the weirdness of the world and, explicitly referred to, the love that Quoyle has finally found in it. Because, of course, we knew this novel was going to be about a completion of a different sort, his becoming a fully-formed man. There’s even a scene in the bathroom as he surveys his physical form, from the powerful shoulders to, well, the not insubstantial genitals. At last, his size isn’t a kind of cosmic joke but the physical signifier of the person he has become. Phew.

On the way to this consummation, as you’d expect, stuff happens. Some of it, in the blackly comic style we’re getting used to, is harsh. The aunt, we discover, was made pregnant by her brother – Quoyle’s own father – and had an abortion. (The moment she finds out that Quoyle has been told is the moment she decides she will no longer be able to live under the same roof as him.) Quoyle discovers his mad relative, practically a living skeleton, on Christmas morning. He’s put into a mental home, but strikes Quoyle as completely sane when he visits. But the old man likes it there, and does things to make sure he isn’t ever let out. Quoyle also finds out that Wavey’s husband was not only unfaithful, but flaunted his philandering, arriving home (sensitive readers look away now) with the sticky products of sex in his matted pubic hair. It helps Quoyle to realise that he’s stuck in the same going-nowhere bind of a bereavement that isn‘t worth the grief.

Then… Jack, the owner of the newspaper, drowns. He’s in his coffin, with Bunny staring at him. She can’t come to terms with the difference between life and death – partly because Quoyle has always told her that Petal is just ’sleeping’. Suddenly, Jack coughs – and comes back to life. As with so many other things in the novel, we’re ok with it. This is Proulx’s magic land of healing and redemption, and this is the sort of thing that happens here. At least it does when Quoyle and his family are anywhere near. Bunny has come a long way, becoming a real character (unlike Sunshine, the sister I’ve hardly mentioned because Proulx hardly ever does). When she’s excluded from school for pushing a teacher, it turns out the teacher was making fun of Wavey’s son. Without overstating it, Proulx is letting her become a force of nature. Who’s to say she didn’t bring Jack back through sheer stubbornness?

As I said at the start, I remember enjoying this book the first time. I can see why I did. I don’t know how Proulx gets away with mixing a determinedly no-nonsense, hands-on realism with a seafarer’s stolid faith in magical events – to say nothing of the everyday magic of redemption and a new understanding of love…. But she does, and who doesn’t like a happy ending?


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