I tend to get nervous when presented with long-form literary fiction. Is it going to be so complex and unconventional that I lose confidence in my ability as a reader? While The Shipping News was assigned as a reading for one of my classes, I found myself obsessing over Proulx’s unique knack to take an ordinary description and flip it around. More than once I stopped and read a passage to my roommate.
The Shipping News focuses on Quoyle, a sad and rather pathetic man who Proulx made comically ugly. Quoyle is a victim: abused by his father, mistreated by his wife, friendless, and bad at everything he does. This is the classic “just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does” situation. Proulx weaves melancholy into the pages to establish a depressed atmosphere, while still managing to give the reader hope. Quoyle’s aunt Agnis convinces him to return to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. It’s Proulx’s description of the untamable Newfoundland that hooked me. The novel takes Freytag’s pyramid and reverts it: tensions and the main conflict arise within the first forty pages. The rest of the novel is a gradual resolution. While this unusual format could easily lose a reader to boredom, Proulx creates characters that demand your care and attention. Oh, and The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book Award if my endorsement isn’t enough.