Muddling Through The Shipping News

The movie poster for the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

The movie poster for the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

Sometimes, when you discover a great author, you can help but tear through their entire bibliography.  This is what I did when I discovered Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy.  I should pace myself and savour their work, but I simply cannot help myself.  I was on the lookout for a new author to fall in love with when I noticed Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.  I was hoping Proulx might be that author.  The Shipping News had won The Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film starring: Julianne Moore, Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.  I’m a big fan of each of the actresses, and they all generally choose really great projects, so I thought this would be a gold mine.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was sadly disappointed.

 

Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx

The novel starts out well.  It tells the story of a protagonist named Quoyle who is married to an unfaithful alcoholic named Petal with whom he has two daughters.  She married him because he is well hung, but she is insatiable and soon can’t stand her husband.  After selling her two daughters to a sex trafficker, Petal goes on the run with a boyfriend.  The two die in a car accident and Quoyle’s daughters are tracked down by police and returned unharmed.  At this point, the “third-rate newspaperman” (as the book’s jacket describes Quoyle) decides to move to Newfoundland at his aunt’s suggestion, where he gets a job reporting the shipping news for a local paper.  This is where the authenticity of the narrative becomes diluted.  Coming from a small town as I do, I am fully aware that nobody who writes for small town newspapers makes very much money doing so.  Most are part time workers or volunteers.  The fact that Quoyle can make a living reporting on car accidents and the boat is laughable, but I try to ignore that for the duration of the novel.

 

 

Julianne Moore, who plays Wavey in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

Julianne Moore, who plays Wavey in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

Quoyle is a weak, and slow person who makes an honest effort, but is largely uninteresting.  The surrounding cast of characters seem authentic to a degree, but are not fully formed and are largely uninteresting as well.  Melodramatic tragedies are lumped onto one another with unrealistic outcomes.  When Quoyle’s daughters are sold to a sex trafficker and are located relatively soon without having been assaulted, while a great outcome, it is not very realistic.  Sex traffickers don’t often wait a couple of days before violating their victims.  Quoyle also meets a woman (Wavey) whose son has down syndrome, and everybody is economically depressed (which is perhaps a fair assessment of the area, but seems to serve into the melodramatic backdrop a bit).  In short the story comes across as kitsch.

 

Cate Blancett who plays Petal in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

Cate Blancett who plays Petal in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

The ending of the narrative is most problematic, not only because a person who is drowned is resurrected as his own funeral (he was just in a coma), but because Proulx has to finish the book with an uber-kitsch life-affirming conclusion, as if that was the only reason for reading the book.  “And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”  I mean seriously? Firstly, no, it doesn’t.  There is always pain.  And secondly, the wording is so ambiguous that it is a pointless statement.  “it may” suggests that the conclusion “may not” be as well, while the ambiguity is furthered by the word “sometimes”.  It may sometimes blah blah blah.  Right.  Or it may not.  Perhaps I should have just read the last sentence and saved myself some time.

 

A young Judi Dench, who plays Agnis Hamm in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

A young Judi Dench, who plays Agnis Hamm in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

One of the problems with the conclusion is that Quoyle eventually falls in love with Wavey and the two get married.  Getting married is not a problem in and of itself (though it is a cliché ending), but there seems to be a lack of substance between the two romantically.  The widow and widower both learn that the other was miserable in marriages where their respective spouses were intolerably unfaithful drunks, so the two wounded birds build a nest together.  Quoyle does seem like a genuinely nice person, and Wavey seems like a decent woman, but neither has much character.  I love a tortured protagonist as much as the next reader, but Quoyle is a tortured simpleton who continues to love his dead wife despite the fact that she sold their daughters to a sex trafficker.  I need more depth to my tortured heroes, though there is a scene when Quoyle writes an article for the paper that concludes with the article title: “Nobody hangs a picture of an oil tanker on their wall.”  This causes a stir in the news house, but the owner ultimately sides with Quoyle.  This is Quoyle’s most interesting display in the novel.

 

The beautiful and talented Julianne Moore, who plays Wavey in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

The beautiful and talented Julianne Moore, who plays Wavey in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

There is also an interesting reference in the novel.  It mentions part of the tragic history of the working class who made their living on the water and speaks to how vessels were laden so heavily with coal or iron that their decks were awash.  The ships were bound to sink and the owners knew this.  They did it for the insurance money.  The crews were drowned with the load.  I am reminded of the Zong, a slave ship that was running low on supplies and so, since their insurance covered drowned slaves but not slaves who died of malnutrition or starvation, the crew tossed a number of the slaves into the water to drown in order to make money on the insurance.  This tragedy inspired works by both Fred D’Aguir (a novel titled Feeding the Ghosts) and M. NourbeSe Philip (a poetry collection titled Zong!).  The parallels are tragic but they serve to demonstrate that such travesties were not carried out based strictly on perceived race, but rather simply greed, and that members of the working class were subject to similar treatment, which for me helps to unite Blacks and working-class people as parties that are both exploited by the ruling class.  But this is another conversation entirely and unfortunately one that Proulx doesn’t draw on in her novel.

 

 

Kevin Spacey who plays the protagonist Quoyle in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

Kevin Spacey who plays the protagonist Quoyle in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

There are some great lines in the novel.  For example, Proulx writes: “what can’t be cured must be endured”, but these seem to be, for the most part, what Quoyle himself refers to as “ten-cent philosophy”.  There is an epigraph at the beginning of each chapter as well, most taken from The Ashley Books Of Knots (the author attempts to build a mythology around her own story, noting that she picked up The Ashley Book of Knots for a quarter at a yard sale and then used it for the novel).  They frankly get tiring and annoying and for me do not add much to the work but serve more as a distraction.  It is like a trick the author decided to use when starting the work and then had to use throughout.  It seems like a vain attempt to add authenticity to the work about a fishing community where the protagonist doesn’t even fish.

 

Cate Blanchett who plays Petal in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News".

Cate Blanchett who plays Petal in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News”.

There are some interesting narratives in the novel, usually coming from characters who people the small town Quoyle has moved to, but there are only so many times you can hear about people drowning or being molested.  We get it.  Also, there are some issues with grammar that are distracting.  Proulx frequently opts not to use dangling modifiers and leaves sentences without them.  So rather than reading “He spoke harshly” it will read “Spoke harshly.”  It is distracting because it happens so often.  If Proulx was challenging certain conventions I would understand, but unlike most post-modern authors, Proulx employs most conventions, such a quote marks.  There are also some issues with her dialogue.  She writes in dialect for many of the characters, but she is not consistent in dropping off the “h” before some words.  There are also instances where there is a period and a new sentence when there should only be a comma, creating fragmented sentences.  All serve to be distracting.   I still intend on reading Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountian”, as I have heard good things about it, but I’m starting to wonder if winning the Pulitzer actually means anything, or if they just randomly hand it out to somebody who manages to get some good press during the year (not that I lend much credibility to such awards).  This is not a bad book by any means, but neither is it a great one.

 

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Cate Blanchett as Petal in the film adaptation of "The Shipping News.

Cate Blanchett as Petal in the film adaptation of “The Shipping News.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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