The Shipping News was E. Annie Proulx’s second novel, and it seemed to come out of nowhere to win all the major awards that the literary community could shower on it, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Her first novel, Postcards, was published in 1991, when she was fifty-six years old. Throughout the preceding decades, Proulx had earned a living writing nonfiction on a wide array of subjects, meanwhile garnering rejections for short stories that contained too much detail, too many characters.
In The Shipping News, Proulx seemed to strike a pleasing balance between a simple plot and an excess of information. Although her next novel, Accordion Crimes (1996), was also a best-seller, it failed to garner the same level of critical approval. In her third novel, Proulx seemed unable to tame her desire for detail, using a multitude of unrelated characters and narratives, and the book’s unifying device, a small accordion, seemed too slight to bear the weight of significance Proulx gave it. The Ashley Book of Knots performs an analogous role in The Shipping News, but its exact purpose is unstated, its presence a grace note.
The Shipping News has been called a novel of small-town life, a romance, and a Gothic narrative. It manages to be all these things and more, and it does so by leaving much of its meaning ambiguous. Quoyle is an unheroic hero, an unlikely but compelling protagonist. Readers want him to end well, and it seems that he does. Proulx, though, leaves it to readers to endorse her tentative conclusion that “it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”