"wrackers", adultery, Annie Proulx, Book Club, Book Review, Brokeback Mountain, depression, Eraserhead, Family Guy, fathers, journalism, Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, knots, Literature, Novel, Passive, Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complain, ships, The Gaurdian, The Shipping News, Working Class Men, Writers, Writing
It seems to me I could live my life A lot better than I think I am
–Working Man, RUSH
Anyone who suggests that Family Guy offers no intellectual opportunity clearly hasn’t watched the show. My reader will note I’m making this comment here and not in the YouTube comment section, and that’s largely for my own safety.
I stand by this comment though because recently (if you can call two months ago “recent”) I sat down and watched one of the new episodes on Netflix. It was a typical episode with plenty of cheap sex and fart jokes, but mid-way through the episode Brian was charged by Peter to get Chris (the teenage son) to become more intelligent so that he doesn’t become a big dope like his father. Brian exposes Chris to culture and naturally Chris becomes more intelligent. He even joins Brian at a book club at some nameless coffee shop. It’s during this small scene though, where I managed to flex a bit of my intellectual muscle, because Chris introduces the book The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and when Brian compares it to Portnoy’s Complaint Chris realizes what every regular viewer of Family Guys knows at this point: Brian is a fraud and a moron.
If the reader has never read Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel is about a neurotic, sex-obsessed Jewish man dealing with his mother issues and complicated sex-life. The Shipping News is a novel about a man who moves to a small New England town after his wife leaves him and sells their daughters to a sex-pervert. If you don’t know either of the plots, or if you haven’t read the books you might almost buy Brian’s bullshit or else you might just laugh and pretend to be in on the joke and just wait for Peter to say something wacky.
But I start with this defense of Family Guy to really get into Proulx’s novel because this scene was enough to get me to sit down and read her book. I had heard of The Shipping News before this, I just didn’t have any real context. Having read Brokeback Mountain several times, and realizing that Proulx’s is probably one of the best proseists since Nabokov, I decided to buy a copy of the book. We had a copy at the library, but I needed to mark in the book and libraries tend to frown upon that. In fact, let me be clear as a library employee, most librarians would like to hire Seal Team Six to track people who mark in books down and destroy them. Just, so the reader knows next time they return a book with dog-eared pages.
The Shipping News hit me in a way I honestly didn’t expect. I recognized, like I said before, after reading Brokeback Mountain that the woman was a brilliant prose writer, but the novel was powerful in the fact that every page had at least some string of words that left me flat. Proulx doesn’t just write a narrative, she manages to craft a menagerie of beautiful yet simple sentences that will remind the reader what great writing is and what can be accomplished when it’s done right. Proulx, much like Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury or Alice Walker, manages to blend poetics with prose into a style that is never pedantic or self-congratulating. Instead it raises her human characters into something akin to a Byzantine mosaic.
If it isn’t obvious I really, really enjoy her writing. But evidence speaks louder than words, and so looking at just one early passage in which she observes Quoyle (the protagonist) and his character one can see how she is setting up her novel and style:
He abstracted his life from the times. He believed he was a newspaper reporter, yet read no paper except the Mockingburg Record, and so managed to ignore terrorism, climatological change, collapsing governments, chemical spills, plagues, recession and failing banks, floating debris, the disintegrating ozone layer. Volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, religious frauds, defective vehicles and scientific charlatans, mass murderers and serial killers, tidal waves of cancer, AIDS, deforestation and exploding aircraft were as remote to him as braid catches, canions and rosette-embroidered garters. Scientific
journals spewed reports or mutant viruses, of machines pumping life through the near-dead, of the discovery that the galaxies were streaming apocalyptically toward an invisible Great Attractor like flies into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. That was the stuff of other’s lives. He was waiting for his to begin. (11).
This opening description of Quoyle always reminds me of Camus or Dostoyevsky and I use those comparisons carefully. Quoyle as a man is almost the existential anti-hero similar to those masters because, as Proulx carefully lists the great tragedies and struggles facing mankind, Quoyle seems entirely above or below it and so is oblivious to concerns of most of the common humanity. He is almost Raskalnikov creating his own morality; he is almost Meursault oblivious as to whether his mother died today or yesterday. What separates these existential champions from Quoyle though is the fact that, in his own way, Quoyle is simply a pathetic man drifting through life. I would argue he might be what’s sometimes referred to as a Paragon, but the problem with that word is that it implies a strength of character that really doesn’t exist in Quoyle until the end of the novel. He’s hardly a man of great integrity or supreme passion, or even of destiny and this is seen especially as he falls for his wife Petal.
Petal is a bitch. I’m just being honest. Quoyle’s opening act involves falling for Petal, who is a loose woman who marries him despite her own nature, and then proceeds to make the next six years of his life a living hell. In another early passage the reader is given a chance to observe how their relationship operates, and further sees how Quoyle is hardly a man of great passion:
One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound the television and, after a while, squeaking, squeaking, squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and the stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears. How could something done in another room by other people pain him so savagely? Man Dies of Broken Heart. His hand went to the can of peanuts on the floor beside the bed.
Quoyle believed in silent suffering, did not see that it goaded. (16).
The reader may be disturbed by this passage, because often in narratives the cheating spouse is interrupted upon. This is the stuff of melodramas and political thrillers, but Proulx is careful to keep Quoyle in the bedroom to bring out a certain point about Quoyle’s nature, and thus also the nature of certain portions of humanity. There are people in this world who prefer to quietly suffer and keep whatever pain is in their hearts. This may seem ridiculous to some, but as someone who suffers from undiagnosed depression this pain is all too real.
I recognize this is a hazardous comment but depression is in many ways a heightened form of narcissm. The mind becomes supremely focused on the ego, specifically how miserable it is and how disconnected it is to other people. I usually call my spells of depression my “raincloud” moments, because it reminds me of the old bits on the Loony Tunes when a character would walk around chased by a small raincloud that would pour down only upon them. That’s just the way it feels. And most of the time, despite the fact that I have friends who would listen to me and offer their emotional support, I keep my sadness (and suicidal thoughts) to myself because, like Quoyle, I would prefer to suffer in silence. That pain, I assure my reader, is unbearable, but what’s truly pernicious about it is that I know a solution is possible, I just haven’t decided do anything about it.
My own condition is probably why I loved The Shipping News so much, and why I feel it’s painfully relevant. Beneath everything that happens in the plot, the novel is an exploration of love and pain, and how those two are eventually reconciled. Quoyle marries Petal who cheats on him regularly before eventually running away with a man and literally selling their two daughters to a stranger who is caught before he can rape them. Petal dies in a car crash with her lover, and Quoyle, who observes all of this in a kind of daze, eventually moves in with his aunt in Newfoundland where he takes up a job as reporter writing “The Shipping News.” This involves writing about ships, and Proulx is effective in creating the atmosphere of New England, while showing how the people of this region depend upon such structures.
In one passage one of Quoyle’s fellow reporters tells him about the shipping tradition:
“Truth be told,” said Billy, “there was many, many people here depended on shipwrecks to improve their lots. Save what lives they could and then strip the vessel bare. Seize the luxuries, butter, cheese, china plates, silver coffeepots and fine chests of drawers. There’s many houses here still has treasures that come off wracked ships. And the pirates always come up from the Caribbean water to
Newfoundland for their crews. A place of natural pirates and wrackers.” (172).
At first glance I see the reader’s reaction, what does this have to do with depression, heart-ache, and pain in general? This just seems a small local history lesson. At first I would agree with my reader, but looking at this quote in relation to everything that happens I believe this quote actually furthers the idea self-obsession and pain that works throughout The Shipping News, because this quote reveals a human need for self-preservation. The “wrackers” mirror Petal and Quoyle because both people ultimately pursue their own self-interest.
People take what they need, oblivious to the long-lasting pain it will cause other people because they are concerned with their own interests, desires, and needs. Proulx is continuing this idea that human beings are selfish, and that selfishness blinds us to pain that we might be causing others
One more quote should demonstrate this and then I will address my reader’s complaint. Quoyle is talking with a few of the men who work with him in the newspaper office and they are discussing their boss:
“Have you ever noticed Jack’s uncanny use about assignments? He gives you a beat that plays on your private inner fears. Look at you. Your wife was killed in an auto accident. What does Jack ask you to cover? Car wrecks, to get pictures while the upholstery is still on fire and the blood still hot. He gives Billy, who has never married or reasons unknown, the home news, the women’s interest page, the details of the home and hearth—must be exquisitely painful to the old man. And me. I get to cover the wretched sexual assaults. And with each one I relive my own childhood. I was assaulted at school for three years, first by a miserable geometry teacher, the by older boys who were his cronies. To this day I cannot sleep without wrapping up like a mummy in five or six blankets. And what I don’t know is if Jack understands what he’s doing, if the pain is supposed to ease and dull through repetitive confrontation, or if it just persists, as fresh as on the day of the first personal event. I’d say it persists.”
It dulls it, the pain, I mean. It dulls it because you see your condition is not unique, that other people suffer as you suffer. There must be some kind of truth in the old saying, misery loves company. That it’s easier to die if others around you are dying.” (221).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point, the social relevance of The Shipping News, but I still understand their reaction. This book sounds like one long depressing read about a mopish guy who is surrounded by other mopish people. Why should I waste my time reading a book that has no hope to it? Where’s the value in such a novel?
This would be a fair concern dear reader, if it was true. In fact The Shipping News has a happy ending as Quoyle begins to realize he has a real ability at writing the events of the day, and also begins to date a woman who helps him internalize his own sense of self-worth. And in fact the final passage of the novel ends with an observation of this dramatic change:
For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off the cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (336-7).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point the real artistic power of The Shipping News, and why Annie Proulx has accomplished something simply incredible. It’s not enough that the novel explores the complicated nature of love and pain and how these two forces tend to intertwine like strands of rope knots. There are men and women like Quoyle that navigate these forces passively, allowing the pain to internalize into something corrosive rather than actively trying to make something of themselves. Quoyle eventually overcomes this passivity and finds a real purpose in life, allowing the pain and tragedy of his past to become just that, the past. And so looking at the larger social relevance, The Shipping News is a beautiful reminder than human life is what you make it.
My depression is something that isn’t going away, but rather than let it define me I actively try to make something out of my existence. This shitty blog is a start. I also listen to Slipknot and Korn. I write fiction that no one reads. I spend time with my family. I work in a library. And, with no ego here, I’m a damn good cook.
The impulse to allow pain to dominate your life and consciousness is a strong one, and I know this from experience. It’s easy to crawl into your head and allow your pain to become the defining attribute of your existence. But that path is ultimately just narcissism and eventual death. Quoyle escapes this and finds a new purpose for living.
Writing about sinking ships may not seem like the way to build your life back, but it’s better than sitting bed devouring peanuts and feeling sorry for yourself.
All quotes taken from The Shipping News came from the Scribner paperback edition.
I didn’t really get a chance to incorporate this quote into the text, but it still felt important to provide it here in relation to this essay:
Benny Fridge sat with his hands folded slightly on his clean desk as though at an arithmetic lesson. His puffed hair made Quoyle think of Eraserhead. (286).
My regular reader, or any David Lynch fan, will understand this reference, and while I love its inclusion in the text, I’m a little bothered by it. Quoyle doesn’t seem like the type who would actually sit down and watch a film like Eraserhead, but at the same time I might be wrong. Quoyle and Henry Spicer are both lethargic men who are largely floating through life passively receiving their existence and agony rather than actively fighting it and making something of themselves.
So. Upon reflection, I think this reference actually works, but only if you’ve actually seen Eraserhead and realized that in Heaven everything is fine. You’ve got yours, and I’ve got mine.
Below are two articles from the guardian about Proulx’s novel as well as the film about the novel starring Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey