Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book 40: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

Somehow this book took me by surprise in spite of the fact that everyone I knew was reading it, everyone who had read it insisted I read it, and everywhere I looked a review raved.

I resisted this tidal wave of praise out of an innate sense of contrariness, a go-against-the-grain-and-don't-believe-the-hype sensibility that was most likely honed while I was a teenager listening to music that was born of total outsider status and despising the flavor of the month. This kneejerk eclecticism kept me from appreciating some very worthwhile music, books, movies, etc., but it is a stance I still prefer to its inverse, which seems slavish and Pavlovian to me.

Needless to say, the second the character of Quoyle appeared I realized that popularity in this case was merited. Like 'The Scarlet Letter' or 'Ethan Frome', this book lives in a spare, sparse, isolated environment which is made all the more stark by the love affair that populates it. This elevates the subject matter to something universal and not soap opera-ish. Which is also why the movie seems an abomination to me. Never having seen it I'll never know for sure.

I do know that the book affected me in an emotional way in which few books have. I love books in different ways. 'Crime and Punishment' I love in the way a citizen loves the country of their birth. 'Moby Dick' I love the way a young boy loves the worlds he imagines for himself to play in. 'The Great Gatsby' I love the way you love a masterpiece painting hanging in a museum of a beautiful woman, the pose capturing a moment in a life you'll never quite grasp.

'The Shipping News' feels like an actual love affair, one that had to end, one that was destined to end, one that, looking back on, you can't quite believe that you started because the end was already so obvious.

This is due partly to my reluctance in picking the book up in the first place.

I dated a girl in college. Dated is a strong word. We flirted for a short time and then she came to a party at my house. She slept with someone else at that party and I fooled around with someone else but we were at the party together. There was a desperation to our coupling when it finally occurred, already laced with guilt because we'd betrayed each other from the first.

This pattern continued over the next year and a half, only ending when the Atlantic ocean intervened and I went to France. Once in France it was as if I was exorcising devils daily. I sank deep into a blackly nihilistic view of humanity which haunted me until about last week.

'The Shipping News' is like that for me. This is heightened by my relationship with the rest of E. Annie Proulx's work. I remember breathlessly awaiting 'Accordion Crimes'. I read the short story volume 'Close Range' which contains 'Brokeback Mountain'. I can't really overstate how much I disliked these books, 'Accordion Crimes' especially. Ooh, I hated and still hate those books.

This adds yet another layer of the bitter remembrance factor to my view of 'The Shipping News'. Why would she move away from that style? Why wouldn't that be the catalyst for deeper, plainer, stronger work?

And like the scars from that collegiate love affair which was over before it ever began, what might have been is stamped onto what is, until you decide to scrape it off and let it heal. So, E. Annie Proulx, I let you go. Thanks for the one book I loved but no longer need.

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