September 2008

Arts & Letters

Unhappy endings

By Amanda Lohrey
Annie Proulx’s ‘Fine Just the Way It Is’

The celebrated American writer Annie Proulx is now in her seventies, and it's possible to look back on her impressive list of publications and identify two distinct genres at work. The first of these is the comic novel of baroque folksiness that documents the culture of a remote regional community, as in her phenomenal bestseller The Shipping News (1993). The second is the grim short story of the western frontier, set mostly in the wilds of Wyoming. In this latter category she has published three volumes, the latest of which is her new collection, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories (Fourth Estate, 224pp; $28).

One of the notable things about Proulx's oeuvre is how different the stories are from the novels. While her stories are bleak and spare, the novels are research-driven and congested with detail, almost as if she were an anthropologist, more concerned to document a cultural terrain than to tell a story. The Shipping News, for example, has only a slender story-line: a sad newspaper hack known as Quoyle loses his unfaithful wife in a traffic accident and moves to windswept Newfoundland to raise his children. Much of the novel is taken up with writing about weather, water, boats and knots, and a great deal of indulgently drawn local colour. Nine years later, Proulx published That Old Ace in the Hole, an even more baroque outing about another regional community, the Texas Panhandle. In both works the characters are a gallery of grotesques, with names like Tert Card, LaVon Fronk and Advance Slauter, and while meant to be heart-warming, more often than not the writing comes across as self-consciously and slyly quaint, a kind of hillbilly twee ("Ain't these folks a turn?"). It's as if a fox had set out to chronicle the lives of chickens.

Most readers thought otherwise. Within two years of publication, The Shipping News sold 3 million copies worldwide. It won the Pulitizer Prize and the National Book Award, and Proulx became famous for her distinctive style. The best of this was an uncanny ear for the staccato rhythms and drop-dead laconic phrasing of redneck and regional vernacular; the worst, a tendency to overwrite. Either you waxed lyrical over the rich brocade of Proulx's sentences or, like the critic BR Myers, you found the novels overwrought, mired in a prose poetry that strained for lyrical effect and too often read like a jumble of inchoate metaphors. Myers called it "fake Dylan Thomas".

The Wyoming stories are altogether more bracing, and their masterpiece is Brokeback Mountain. Though it runs to only 12,000 words, Brokeback first appeared in book form as a stand-alone publication, a rare accolade for a single short story. Here, Proulx steps into a radically different mode of storytelling, in which the strategy of the novels is inverted: the material is condensed, with masterly precision, into a short story. The language is pared back, and where the novelist Proulx might have been tempted to pad the story with research - arcane technical information (about horse and cattle handling, say), a history of the milieu (the territory of Wyoming), or novelistic stock material (major characters' formative childhood experiences, the vagaries of minor characters and subplots) - the minimalist Proulx opts for the poetry of the unsaid. Take, for example, the scene - unaccountably missing from the movie - where the young cowherds Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar sing around the campfire as an intimate prelude to a night of rough sex. It's one of the most affecting moments in the story and it lasts for all of half a page.

Brokeback Mountain is so good, so terse and compact, that it calls into question any number of wordy and overly descriptive novels (usually described as rich and epic). I can think of no other contemporary work that so effectively demonstrates the potential of the short form, and it deserved its separate publication. It also appeared in the 1999 collection Close Range, the first volume of Proulx's Wyoming stories and arguably her best book. Here, each story is a saga of suffering and futility, of loneliness and victimhood, and each is told with the same stunning conviction as Brokeback. It's as if Proulx had set out to challenge the myth of the frontier, to focus on those small farmers and hapless cowboys who are the sad underside, the nameless extras of the American west. Far from being the locus of all that is most authentic in thought and feeling, Proulx's frontier is a wilderness of bigotry and greed, the source of a reactionary wagon-train morality that did much to install George W Bush in the White House.

The second Wyoming volume, Bad Dirt (2004), is more of the same. These are stories of almost unrelieved spiritual bleakness, and herein lies a problem. For anyone coming to Proulx for the first time, the power of her anger is enlivening; it's only when you read the Wyoming stories in sequence that you are likely to question her method. As with her earlier volume of tales about migrants to the US, Accordion Crimes (1996), you begin to perceive a default mode of willed violence that seems not to grow out of the stories but to be imposed on them. In Accordion Crimes, characters are strung up by lynch mobs and shot into flying pieces, carved up by chainsaws or drowned in a hot spring so their eyes are boiled blind. Similarly, in the Wyoming stories, characters are castrated, hideously disfigured, trampled by steers or beaten to death with a tyre iron. The New York Times reviewer Walter Kendrick caught the mood when he lamented "the abattoir without walls that is Ms Proulx's America".

This is all very well if the reader is swept along and, ultimately, moved. But what if, over time, catastrophe becomes predictable and the reader jaded? In Proulx's latest volume, Fine Just the Way It Is, a law of diminishing narrative returns begins to kick in early: a farmer's wife dies of a post-partum haemorrhage in an isolated cabin; a poor cowherd freezes to death in a snow drift; a young bushwalker dies agonisingly on a hiking trail. You begin to feel that you have been here before. Often the writing reads like an early draft and some pieces are fragmentary, as though derived from folklore, such as the tale of a man-eating sage-brush tree and Proulx's imagining of a terrifying bison run by Native Americans in pre-European times. Uncharacteristically, there are two pieces of lame satire in which the Devil embarks on redecorating Hell. Overall, the effect is of a collection of offcuts from Close Range.

This is a pity, because the long final story, ‘Tits-Up in a Ditch', had the potential to be something special in the vein of Brokeback. An account of an impoverished young mother who, as a way of supporting her infant son, enlists in the US Army and is sent to Iraq, it's a crucible of Proulx's anger at the imbecilic dishonesty of an American triumphalism in which the injunction to "be all you can be" (a line she deploys in the story) serves only to mask the hideousness of Cronus devouring his children. But pages before you arrive at the denouement of this story, you are well ahead of its creator: you have already guessed that the young soldier is going to get blown up by an IED and at the very least lose a limb. You feel that what would be truly shocking in one of these Wyoming stories would be to encounter a happy ending.

What is it about Brokeback Mountain that transcends this effect of vulgar authorial string-pulling? Brokeback has a quality that is difficult to define, a kind of grace, and it was this that Heath Ledger managed so remarkably to embody in Ang Lee's otherwise lead-footed movie adaptation. This grace, this sense of an undefiled core, amounts to a happy ending of a kind, and it reminds me of Frederic Jameson's argument that all good stories have at their heart a utopian vision; in the midst of death and despair they keep alive the possibility of the good and the true. Though Jack has died a violent death, Ennis is still able to dream of him, to wake in the morning in the afterglow of his presence. In this way, love survives. Through the device of the dream, which both begins and ends the story, the writer acknowledges another level of the real, and it's this emotional poise, this balance of the bleak and the blissful that makes of Brokeback such a complex and satisfying narrative. Proulx's flinty, punitive urge yields to a graceful stoicism, affectingly encapsulated in the last line of the narrative: "if you can't fix it you've got to stand it." The power of this lies in the fact that it is not wholly bleak. Ennis can stand it, because as long as he can dream of Jack he has something to go on with, and Proulx has shown us that something with rare artistry. I wish she would show it to us more often.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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