Friday, June 25, 2010

The Shipping News

I just finished a personal odyssey, spanning one month and three continents, with E. Annie Proulx’s book The Shipping News. I started the book before leaving Dakar but it has taken me until last night (I am posting this a bit belatedly) to finish the 337 pages. Given my current location in Kathmandu, a post on a book about Newfoundland might seem a bit out of place. But here goes.

The book reminds me, oddly enough, of home – the longer I stay away from the United States the more affinity I feel for different Northern American cultures which are increasingly distant from my own. This has grown, in the last couple weeks, to include the unlikely Newfoundland, a cold, wet Canadian rock 15 km off the coast in the Atlantic and just about as far away as you can get from California. As I was telling Coline today, I never would have guessed that I would find a squid burger (a specialty of Skipper Will’s, a restaurant frequented by the characters) appetizing. But the lack of a quality American burger over the past months has pushed my mouth to water and much lesser things. Normally the sight of raw octopus or squid makes my stomach squirm, but who knows, perhaps a squidburger could be kind of good?

As a general impression I can say simply that I loved this book. Rich, endlessly creative descriptions push the mind to re-imagine the most mundane things: “In the booth in front of them a scrawny man with a mustache like a bar code glanced over his shoulder at Card.” Nothing I would ever have thought of, but I know exactly what she means. I also love the great character names and Proulx’s unabashedness in using them, for example Quoyle’s children, Sunshine and Bunny. Seems hard to take seriously, doesn’t it? And yet her characters are so easy to identify with that the names become charming aspects of their personalities as opposed to obstructions in the reading. Another joy was reading a book with an endless supply of new words. Maritime vocabulary, something I know next to nothing of, features very prominently, but even on dry land I was reminded of how creatively the English language can be used with seldom-used verbs and adjectives. I certainly didn’t expect a book in English to be so challenging when compared to the French and Wolof I was learning at the time I started it.

Reading this book has made me think a lot about writing, as you can see. As photographers learn, what’s most important is not what you include in a photograph but what you exclude - it’s all about the framing. The camera lens and film crop what our eyes see, and to a lesser extent manipulate them. Proulx does this masterfully with her writing, cropping out everything except the details that develop her characters (I include places as characters). All of the characters and locations in the book are described in great detail (sometimes only over time) but the descriptions are never excessive. She makes it clear that the many facets of a person’s personality can never be fully described, so each moment and minute detail becomes descriptors of identity. Sentences can be choppy and short like the tone of the conversation or the mood of the place, or they can be long and eloquent since that’s how the speaker talks.

Notably Proulx is patient, and the personalities build throughout the book through the accumulation of these details. Relationships develop in The Shipping News like they do in real life most of the time, from day to day, moment to moment, slowly and gradually. A lot of things aren’t understood at the moment and the author doesn’t rush to explain them, as that would be unnatural, taking the reader out of the story. Real life is full of mysteries we choose not to think about (except for the particularly savory ones), which sometimes leads us to focus on what we know rather than what we don’t know. But if we focus on what we don’t know than all of the assumptions we make in life jump out at us. How much in our life do we really not know? Some things, in fact most things, day-to-day and in The Shipping News, are never truly understood.

One of the reasons relationships are portrayed in such a way is because they are seen through the eyes of Quoyle, who tends to be timid, take things slowly and be generally non-judgmental. But there is a clear running commentary on human relationships in the book. The Newfoundland way of life, a slower paced, artisanal, family-oriented, home-cooking and nature-bound lifestyle is one that has its clear advantages. However Proulx isn’t afraid to face the uglier side as well. While the characters speak proudly of their great maritime tradition they also take time to mull over the local “tradition” of child abuse. The reality painted is both beautiful and harsh. As the characters reflect on how they view the mainland and how it views them, why Newfoundlanders who go away seldom come back and whether they should invest in oil or fish, the gravity of these questions in their lives spills over into our own. At stake are fundamental questions of identity. I see The Shipping News as, in the end, advocating more than criticizing the Newfoundland community as a place to develop an identity that includes strong connections to others and to nature. Life, I feel, should be simpler and richer, like for Quoyle and his family. While this is only one aspect of a complex book it is the message that stands out to me the most. On the one hand it is message that is increasingly common as slow-food campaigns increase and consumerism and materialism are increasingly attacked. However there is a truth and a reality in this book that is more profound than all the campaigning and theorizing, it is the true doing, and the depth of this doing that is revealed so beautifully.

If you read it, what were your thoughts? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear them.