Fine just the way it is: Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx
The realism of Annie Proulx’s fiction is an extraordinary phenomenon. Realism in a novel has never been the same thing as plausibility, and her novels and short stories are full of bizarre and unforeseen events. The violent extremity of a great deal of her narratives sometimes verges on the territory of urban myth rather than anything recognizable as everyday life, and she enjoys characters considerably beyond the ordinary territory of the grotesque. A roll-call of her characters’ names suggests some of the fantastic strangeness of her fictional world: Freda Beautyrooms, LaVon Fronk, Rope Butt, Ruby Loving (a man), Hefran Wardrip, and a whole family named after musical instruments, of whom we hear of aunts Viola, Lutie, Banjie, and uncles Xylo and Tam (presumably –bourine). We are not, it seems, in Kansas any more.
And yet she is a densely realist writer. She wants to know exactly how the world is put together, and she evokes it not with broad strokes, but with an immense number of informed, exact, and often technical specifics. The three-page acknowledgements at the beginning of her best novel, That Old Ace in the Hole is a thing of wonder to find prefacing a work of fiction:
Thanks to Arlene Paschal for her explanations of irrigation equipment…Laura van Campenhout…helped with Dutch windmill phrases…Clinton Davis’s knowledge of the turn of the century local business of raising broomcorn…to Mike McKinney…for a lucid and clear explanation of the technique of floodwater recovery of oil…Ed Day gave a fine exhibition of flint knapping (deleted in the final version)…Ruth Erikson was good company at an Oklahoma cockfight.
As Bromo writes to Bob Dollar in That Old Ace, ‘the broadly engaged mind is the source of a happy life’ — surely a sentiment that the author would endorse. This huge level of engaged research produces a fictional texture that one has come to think of as characteristic of American realism. Aunt Agnis Hamm tells her nephew, in The Shipping News, that she needs
an industrial-grade sewing machine, button press, pair of padded trestles, taking-down tools — tack lifters and ripping chisels, rebuilding tools — hide strainers, webbing stretchers.
In this collection, a character goes for a mountain hike and notes ‘an explosion of wildflowers – columbine, penstemon, beautiful Clarkia, chickweed and Indian paintbrush’. Roland Barthes said he read a very similar catalogue of specificities in Flaubert with a sort of ecstasy. It has a realist effect, but hardly calls up the world — the words ‘hide strainers, webbing stretchers’ suggest almost nothing to me except the author’s promise that she is telling us something very exact, and I wouldn’t want to venture what colour most of those wildflowers might or might not be. There can hardly be a single human being who fully responds to everything evoked by a Proulx novel.
We rebel, I think, against Proulx’s astonishing, cataloguing level of detail, not when we don’t know what she’s talking about, but on the rare occasions when we feel that her characters wouldn’t, and she’s allowed a delight in the names of the world to override any psychological plausibility. When Quoyle in The Shipping News walks along the shore ‘past bladder wrack, knot wrack, horn wrack and dead-man’s-fingers, green sausageweed and coralweed, mats of dulse and in their thousands, crushed clumps of bristly bryozoan’, we don’t imagine for a moment that any of that knowledge is in this newly-uprooted city-dweller’s head. It reeks of a morning with some dictionary of seaweed, what the 16th century would have called inkhorn terms.
Nevertheless, by the end of one of her novels, one understands how the world works, as taken in one small slice. Two of her novels are interesting failures, Postcards and Accordion Crimes, both hobbled by a premature decision about a structure for the narrative, which in both cases comes to seem arbitrary. Two, however, are masterpieces; The Shipping News and, even finer, That Old Ace in the Hole carry out a near-sociological survey of Newfoundland and the Texas panhandle respectively, trusting in the intricately specific texture to tell stories both bizarre and strangely constructed. That Old Ace in the Hole is a novel of unfinished story-telling, and around the edges, fabulously bizarre episodes gather. A gang of Christian confectioners lures hardbitten cowhands away from their usual diner with unfamiliar delicacies.
I wouldn’t a thought ranch hands would have such a grasp on confectionary items but Ernie Chambers come in and told me if I didn’t start making crème brulée he was takin his business over there.
An archive yields photographs of 19th century cowboys at a drag ball — ‘C.W.Pool wore overskirt ecru denims with corsage of lemon colour cretonnes’.
These narratives have odd or extreme starting points. The Shipping News begins with the attempted sale of the hero’s two daughters to a child pornographer by his estranged wife. That Old Ace is, on the surface, about the failure of a hog-farm scout to buy land for his employer in a narrow slice of Texas. They are, too, frequently most peculiarly structured. Secrets are much more likely to remain hidden by the end than to be uncovered. Quite large and detailed sequences can have no narrative consequences at all, and the reader will often wonder what Orlando Bunnel, the Evil Fat Boy, was doing in That Old Ace at all.
Proulx is an enchanting, unusual, intense novelist, as capable of an embarrassing failure as of a splendid triumph.The peculiarities of her style are often more marked in her short stories than in her novels. This new collection is pretty clearly divided into stories which don’t work at all and ones which seem to create something marvellously new in most unorthodox ways. When she ventures out of her familiar territory, the results can be fairly awful. I admit to being allergic to all narratives of prehistoric life, and this one is straight out of some terrible creative writing class.
Night after night the thready monotone of [the shaman’s] prayers and invocations had formed the solemn background of the band’s dreaming
There are two stories set in hell with the Devil as the hero, apparent attempts at humorous topical satire which I beg Annie Proulx on bended knee not to repeat. And I was quite enjoying one story of frontier life until I realized that it was all about a serial-killer tree. These ventures into magical realism traduce the possibilities of Proulx’s oddness by settling into the conventionally odd — trees which kill, the Devil’s view of life on earth and grunting romances about stone-age communities were all totally old-hat for mildly ambitious pulp writers like Isaac Asimov 40 years ago.
Where the collection comes to life is in stories which examine ordinary life in unconventional ways. Proulx likes the short story which covers a long stretch of existence, rather than the classical, Katherine Mansfield, approach to an illuminating episode. One of the uncommented things about her great story, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, in her collection, ‘Close Range’, was what a stretch of living it got through in 35 pages, allowing her to chime together recurrent incidents, separated in reality by the indefinite experience of the everyday. Here, too, her best stories cover the passage of years. ‘Tits up in a Ditch’ follows an unwanted child from birth, through her teenage repetition of her reckless mother’s mistakes to a tragic welter of violent deaths and physical suffering — it’s the sweep of time as much as the terrible sequence of war, loss and accidental death which takes the reader’s breath away. A more conventional writer would have focussed on a midway epiphany, when
the grandparents who had brought the heroine up callously and carelessly come to love her infant son; but the story presses forward into appalling catastrophe.
The element of the bizarre when violence descends on us is one of Proulx’s best subjects, marvellously embodied in the first of these stories, ‘Family Man’. Set in a Wyoming old-people’s home, it is principally about an old cowhand’s discovery of his father’s polygamous ways. For no very good reason, however, it includes the wild coincidence of a disreputable part of the hero’s past, an aged Forrie Wintka, turning up at the home (‘The first female he had ever plowed, a coal-town slut, was sharing final days with him at the Mellowhorn Home’). Most novelists would exploit or develop the mild novelistic sin of the coincidence; Proulx inconsequentially throws poor old Forrie into the Grand Canyon (‘There was a stifled ‘Oh!’ and she disappeared. A park ranger ran to the parapet.’) no more than two pages after she first enters.
If violence unbalances the form of some of these stories, so that an account of a marriage ends in a lengthy description of an injured woman thirsting to death on a trail, or (another story) bleeding to death in a remote cottage, or (another story) the husband dying after being kicked in the thigh by a horse, then Proulx’s theme, really, is how violence unbalances all our lives. It won’t become just another episode in our own narratives, and it makes these narratives topple over in ugly, affecting ways. And, quite often, she seems to see how the bizarre and inexplicable, the grotesque juxtaposition, can underlie our happinesses as well as our tragedies.
Marc was fourteen years older than Catlin, could speak three languages, was something of a self-declared epicure, rock climber, an expert skier, a not-bad cellist, a man more at home in Europe than the American west, he said but Catlin thought these differences were inconsequential although she had only been out of the state twice, spoke only American and played no instrument. They met and fell for each other in Idaho.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 30, 2008