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The Shipping News by Annie Proulx… without the Kevin Spacey book cover

January 4, 2021
At least Kevin Spacey isn’t on this cover.

When I bought The Shipping News by Annie Proulx a few weeks ago, I ripped the Kevin Spacey movie cover off because I didn’t want to associate Kevin Spacey with the main character. I’ve never seen the movie version of The Shipping News, so I had the chance to read this book without visualizing Hollywood actors/actresses.

Though the ripped cover strategy was a bit controversial, it seems to have worked. My imagination does NOT picture Kevin Spacey as the main character Quoyle. Also, I haven’t read anything about the book to affect my expectations. All that I know is that several people I respect recommend The Shipping News, and that it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and that the movie sucked (from what I’ve heard).

I like The Shipping News so far. I’ll keep reading it, but I’m a little frustrated by it. The writing is good, but I’m more interested in the minor characters than the main character Quoyle. This is one of those novels where things happen to a seemingly bland character. That would be fine if the main character felt real. I feel like Quoyle is a caricature of a passive character and all the potentially interesting secondary characters are two-dimensional.

The characters seem to exist only to help Quoyle or torment him. And some of them seem more like caricatures than real people. There’s the extremely nice black couple that befriends Quoyle, but the book never explains anything about them. Why would they go out of their way to become friends with Quoyle and then just leave? Are they just that nice? Or was the wife using Quoyle as a character study?

Then there’s the evil slutty wife who becomes the mother of his two daughters. Instead of developing her character, she’s just the abusive, slutty wife. And then she dies. Yeah, there might be women like her, but this was a chance to delve into an interesting character, and the author didn’t do it.

The boss at the local newspaper was a bossy caricature in a Lou Grant kind of way (that’s how I pictured him), but that was again two-dimensional. As far as two-dimensional characters go, they’re very well-written. I’d rather read a novel with well-written two-dimensional characters than one with poorly-written two-dimensional characters.

At least the situations are interesting as well. As a writer, I enjoyed the sequences at the local newspaper, and I’m guessing that there’ll be more (since the novel is called… The Shipping News).

I can see why I didn’t get very far when I read this book in the 1990s. That might have been a reflection of me as reader more than the book itself (I was reading Tom Clancy novels back then, alright?). At least in the mid-1990s, I didn’t know who Kevin Spacey was.

*****

Enough about me! What do you think? What famous actors have ruined fictional characters for you? What did you think of The Shipping News (without spoiling it for me).

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