Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Review of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Diction, oh glorious diction. I bow before your powers. How you make the mind salivate over poetic precision. To remind me how diverse and dynamic yet focused and specific the English language is. To have me rapt, word by word, line by line, the story clicking sub-consciously into place. How is it possible to write so well?!?! Oh, on my knees before thee... I guess if proof was ever needed what makes a bibliophile a bibliophile, such would be the hyperbole flooding my mind while reading Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993).

I will come back to the diction later, but for now it’s worth pointing out that The Shipping News tells an excellent, multi-layered story as well. The Shipping News tells the tale of Quoyle. Something of a doormat in life, he has a bad run of things. He chooses poorly in marriage. He’s constantly losing jobs. His relationship with his two young daughters is not what it should be. And many other things combine to make him a downtrodden Joe. But a tragedy shakes things up, and Quoyle decides to move to his family’s ancestral home in Newfoundland. Wild stories of the sea, quirky townsfolk, a car crash everyday—some might say that it’s at this point the real story begins.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s go back to style and technique. Glorious, how glorious… Sorry, sort of slipped there. The Shipping News is phenomenally well written. Proulx deploys a semi-minimalist style that runs parallel to the manner in which most mainstream writers tell a story, but treads its own path in terms of phrasing and expression. Not obtuse for obtuseness’s sake, everything is perfectly readable and understandable—just with a poetic disposition that adds a layer of meaning and metaphor. If writing is thought of as an art that can be mastered, then it’s this layer which makes all the difference, and is at the least a reason for some to fall in love with the novel.

If you’ve seen the film, then you’re probably wondering: how can you effect such praise? Hollywood turned it into Hallmark, yes? And that would be a good observation—as well as a chance to get back on the diction bandwagon. But really, indeed the film tells a relatively straight-forward tale that the reader has seen in some form or another before, and when this skeleton is exposed in the film, it becomes meh. It’s the muscles and skin Proulx dresses the skeleton which incite interest, which drive engagement, and ultimately where its satisfaction is derived from. A storyteller with a mundane voice is not really much of a storyteller after all.

But beyond excellent, bar-setting diction, The Shipping News offers the reader a couple of additional elements to digest. It’s possible to argue that the foundation of the novel is something Thoreau would appreciate—that Quoyle’s story is rooted in getting back to rural life, to the simple things, to the salt of existence, to a place where a person can focus on home and family, on relationships and happiness in their job, that is, rather than the speed and blur of modern urban life. Quoyle’s emotional self-recognition the barometer measuring this transformation, the readers sees, albeit subtly, the doormat of a man stand himself upright.

The Shipping New is now almost thirty years old, and it remains, only to a small degree, in the public eye. But if you haven’t read it, and you are a reader who appreciates excellent, excellent writing, find this title. Proulx puts on a clinic of master class diction—how to consistently and effectively write, line after line, word after word, and prove writing is truly an art. Quoyle’s story, and those around him, well, those are good, too. WIN-win!

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