Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Some Short Thoughts on a Spare Novel

Too much time has passed since I read Annie Proulx's The Shipping News to give it a proper review (I finished it back in January). However, it stuck with me enough that I want to at least jot down a few thoughts:

The main thing is, I liked it even though I suspected I wouldn't. I don't read a lot of non-genre novels these days, so I wasn't sure how this would strike me. Also, Proulx's prose is often described as 'spare,' and the stories I love tend more toward the lyrical.

So let's take the prose first: it is indeed spare. Many of her sentences are missing at least one ordinarily needed part of speech. They lack nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, subjects, objects, or some combination of the above.
"The Aunt in her woolen coat when Quoyle came into the motel room. Tin profile with a glass eye. A bundle on the floor under the window. Wrapped in a bed sheet, tied with net twine."
This style is often used to set up scenes and tone at the beginning of a chapter. I never found myself held up by the prose--the lack of grammar never hindered understanding of the sentence or communication of the mood. I think she sacrificed grammatical correctness in favor of rhythm, and that trade-off worked for me.

In many ways this is a pure character piece; certainly to the extent that there's a plot it's about the characters and their relationships. However, what it isn't is a story of a bunch of people talking about their feelings, or having internal narration about their introspection of their feelings, or external narration about their feelings. This is a paragon of 'show, don't tell.' There is a stunning amount of pain in this novel: widowers, sexual abuse victims, insane people, parents losing children, people with thwarted dreams, etc. There's even a dead dog. However, the narration keeps all of it at a distance, as repressed as the characters experiencing it. The book is set in Newfoundland, and while I was raised (partly) in New England, this attitude felt *very* familiar. The 'proper' response to intense personal drama is to treat it at a remove; talk about it rarely if at all, and jokingly if you can. This is how the characters are handling things, and the narration does as well. The traces of pain show up instead in small details, allusions in conversations, in children's questions and the like. This made perfect sense to me, and I ended up liking it quite a bit.

There are a few bits in the story that could be interpreted as fantastic. I'm glad they weren't. Belief in odd bits of superstition, fate and fatalism are treated as matter-of-factly as buying a new boat. This jibes with my memories of intensely practical relatives of mine who had occasionally seen ghosts or had premonitions. Just a part of life up there. Today my skepticism may put a different spin on those events, but that's a very different perspective than the one held by the people with the experiences. Again, I think Proulx handled it just right.

I'm not sure I would have liked it so much a few years ago, before I started reviewing. Since then I've become more sensitive to structure and diction and what they actually do for a story. Without that I'm pretty sure most of the above would've gone right over my head. In fact, I bet in high school I would have dismissed it (as I did so many books I was forced to read) as being boring and having 'unlikable' characters. Now, combined with the perspective of having to live an adult life, I appreciate this rather quieter brand of heroism and character than I could before.

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