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The Shipping News (1993)
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
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,
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
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.
See also:General Literature
Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers
National Book Award Winners
Pulitzer Prize (Fiction)
Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books
-A GUIDE TO E. ANNIE PROULX (Author Page)
-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: E. ANNIE PROULX: ACCORDION CRIMES (Jam! Books, ROBIN ROBINSON -- Toronto Sun)
-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
I think Proulx was exploring the harsh truth about some of the lifestyles people of the world live, and how retreating from the global to the local may give a sense of meaning to an individual. The comment on whether she likes or dislikes her characters is neither here nor there, rather a form of black humour to gain strength in her comment of retreat.
I think the way she depicts her characters is quite humorous and ironic in places, which for me has made it an enjoyable book.
- Nov-03-2003, 20:24
Let's take your comments to heart. Writers play Gods. Then the writer who wrote down the story of Job was also very mean to his characters. Are you going to dislike that story because the author wasn't nice?
Do you not know any people in your life who have had a hard go of it? Or you just don't want to read about it. Go read "Dandelion Wine" then.
- Jul-04-2003, 04:40