Monday, December 27, 2010
Entry 25: "The Shipping News" by E. Annie Proulx (1994)
Christmas is always a stressful time of year for me. Thanksgiving is bad enough, but the four weeks leading up to Christmas are like riding on a train that you know is going to crash into a ravine—I'm just waiting, waiting, bracing myself for December 25th. Then it comes, it's a mess, then it's over, and I come away from it relatively unscathed. This year, though, it's as if both The Universe and Fortuna, herself, were conspiring against me. 2010 was the year of the worst December ever.
But, I'm a fighter. And I'm a survivor. I had the courage and the strength to stand up to the winds (that are still blowing, if I'm being honest with myself) and I did not bow or break. I pressed forward, and even gathered the energy to read another book.
I needed to read another book from the 90's since I've been forsaking that decade lately, and at Joshua's suggestion, I wanted to read Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, but in my recent moves, I couldn't find it. Instead, I chose the first novel from the 90's I could find in my "Unread Pulitzer Books" box, E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, the novel that won a year after Butler, in 1994.
Now, I know that conflict is a catalyst to driving a novel forward and that a story without conflict, really, isn't a story at all. But a few chapters into The Shipping News, I almost started to regret picking this one up when I did. As I mentioned, life was putting me through the wringer for the entirety of December and I was plenty stressed out. I thought I had it rough losing two homes in one week.
The hell that Proulx puts her protagonist, Quoyle, through makes my life look like a cakewalk. And that stressed me out even more.
In the first half of this novel, Quoyle's parents commit suicide, his wife cheats on him with countless other men, then leaves him and takes their children, she sells his two daughters to a black market adoption agency, she then dies in a car wreck, he loses his job, his house, gets his kids back, but is forced to move to Newfoundland, where his family originated, to a home he could afford with the very little amount of money he had.
This character took a beating from his author of The Fixer magnitude.
In her acknowledgments, Proulx mentions The Ashley Book of Knots, a book that she found at a garage sale for a quarter and references in almost every chapter; her chapter titles, predominantly, are knot names and she offers an explanation of the knot by referencing the The Ashley Book of Knots. The first chapter, for example, is entitled "Quoyle;" the explanation Proulx provides from The Ashley Book of Knots states, "Quoyle: A coil of rope. A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary."
This explanation is a perfect summary of her main character's life. Quoyle is a one-layered man that gets walked on by the world surrounding him every single day. Just like me, more often than not. Coincidentally, Quoyle has Irish blood.
However, as the novel progresses into its second half, Quoyle's luck starts to turn around—he gets hired at a local newspaper, impresses his editor and is promoted twice, he makes friends in the community, falls in love with a woman who truly loves him in return, his relationship with his children improves, and he learns how to love himself and be happy with his life. He becomes more confident, more poised, more in control of his life. There is no central conflict to the novel upon first reading, which I found annoying, but upon completion, the reader realizes that Quoyle's central conflict was with himself all along.
The Shipping News is ultimately a redemption story. It is the story of a man who refuses to let his lot in life define his life and comes out on top. And that's the sort of story I think we're all hoping to live.
I certainly am.