I read the Shipping News in 1997 when I was twenty-two years old. It is hard to articulate now the effect it had on me. It’s moving, its beautiful, and it’s the first time I self-consciously realized I was reading a literary novel.
I’d read other serious novels before, of course, but this was this was I think the first book where I began to understand the “literary” novel as a genre unto itself. Shipping News is a book where the language (gorgeous) and structure (complex) matter as much as the plot (haunting) and characters (pitch perfect). Much of the literary novel genre attempts to incorporate these elements, but end up being boring books about Brooklyn writers writing about writing. Not the Shipping News. There are thoughts on writing, yes, (our protagonist is a journalist who covers, of course, the shipping news in this port city in Newfoundland) but they lie in background, behind the lives of haunted characters. As it should be.
But it isn’t the plot I remember best. It’s the scenes in Newfoundland, the description of the loneliness of this port city, that resonated with me and sent me looking for others books with tasteful covers and authors with MFAs. Very few have been as good as the Shipping News, which you should read before you pick up that next book written by a Jonathan living in Brooklyn.