The Shipping News

-If you have not yet read The Shipping News and you wish to remain ignorant of key plot points, stop reading. You’ve been warned.-

I had read Close Range (Proulx’s collection of short stories set in Wyoming -which contains the infamous “Brokeback Mountain”) a few years ago, but The Shipping News had been sitting in my to-read pile for a long time before I finally got to it. Keeping it in that pile, getting kicked down by new book purchases, was a bad idea. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Proulx is incredibly good at crafting very rounded characters within a literary work, providing the reader with a skeletal frame immediately and then fleshing the person out throughout the book in a very satisfying way. The kind of person Quoyle is is made known from the first few pages, a powerfully concise framing that reminded me of Updike’s story “Oliver’s Evolution”. Having an entire novel at her disposal, rather than the five paragraphs of Updike’s story, Proulx continues to build surprising nuance into a character that had seemed sympathetic from the first, but hardly as deep as we come to see him to be. The novel also makes use of a structural element involving an old books of knots that really, well, ties everything together, and well.

And, for a novel that kicks of with an abusive spouse selling her daughters into sex slavery and child pornography before being killed in a car with her lover, and more than one narrative element involving child abuse and incest, The Shipping News presents that rare incarnation in literary fiction, the happy narrative and the happy conclusion. This book has the most satisfying resolution of anything I’ve read in recent memory. Like another recent read, st. Aubyn’s On the Edge, Proulx balances a cynical and condemning evaluation of a subculture with warmth and pathos. Lots of the characters in this book are terrible, or miserable, or simply so far removed from a normal middle-class American existence as to be intractably strange, and this is often fodder for critique or comedy. But again, you have the warmth. It’s a testament to her writing that Proulx can not only create a compelling story that resolves misery into real happiness without it seeming trite or saccharine, she can write these characters with love and humor balancing the cutting examination.

Recommendation: Read it. It didn’t win her the Pulitzer, the Irish Times Fiction Prize, and the National Book Award just to sit in your to-read pile. For shame.


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