Sunday, January 29, 2006

Close Range

By Annie Proulx

On the whole, this collection was a disappointment to me, and I think the reason for that is a combination of expectations created by the buzz surrounding the movie Brokeback Mountain and the fact that, because of the buzz, I read that story first even though it appears last in the book.

It isn’t the only fine story in the book, but it so far outshines the other in terms of drama and gutsiness, that the other stories fade quickly. I did like “The Half-Skinned Steer,” which opens the book. In that story, an old man returns to Wyoming for his brother’s funeral; things have changed and he isn’t as capable as he once was, as he thinks he still is: “The snow roared through the broken window. He put the car in reverse and slowly trod the gas. The car lurched and steadied in the track and once more he was twisting his neck, backing in the red glare, twenty feet, thirty, but slipping and spinning; there was too much snow. He was backing up an incline that had seemed level on the way in but showed itself now as a remorselessly long hill studded with rocks and deep in snow . . .”

But of course the star of the show is “Brokeback Mountain,” about the cowboys Ennis and Jack who find themselves one summer, manage to carry on a relationship despite their respective wives and families, but can’t ultimately, have happiness:

They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in thent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours.

Proulx’s language is wonderful, each word rich, each sentence lyrical and full. But even in this fine story, which takes a bold risk in the subject matter, I felt that something was lacking. All of these stories suffer from too much narrative—these are told stories, where the reader learns much of what is needed not from watching it unfold on the page but by being told what has happened. Many of the stories, including this one, take place over a long period of time, which is unusual for short stories, where usually the focus is a small moment in time. And sometimes, it seemed to me, the drama is not earned. In “Brokeback Mountain,” for example, why do Ennis and Jack have this attraction for each other? I believe it could happen, but I’m not sure I buy it in the context of the story as it appears on the page.

This won’t stop me from seeing the movie, though, when it comes next week to The Visulite.

5 comments:

Nance Knauer said...

interesting take on her work. people usually feel strongly one way or another with her. i'll open this up for debate. her style is not the accepted form, you're right, but her voice is so authentic that i'm pulled into the narrative and the world she creates without question. the scope of Brokeback is almost epic, your're right, but i think it works and she does earn each dramatic moment, it just may take a number of reads to move into the heads and hearts of her characters, which is a risky way to write.

i struggled with Shipping News, mostly, i think, because her approach IS so odd, so far from the mark of current storytelling.

i'd say she doesn't take any kind of audience into consideration. i think she's driven to try and capture these lonely worlds and critics (and maybe readers) be damned!

Clifford Garstang said...

Thanks for those thoughts. All this is to AP's credit, I think. She's unique and non-traditional and interested in language and that's why the B.R. Myerses of this world (A Reader's Manifesto) take issue with her. He says she "exploits the license of poetry while begging a novelist's exemption from precision and polish." Whatever that means.

I actually think writers these days can learn from her, that we can write appealing prose without conforming to some apparent set of rules we've heard about in MFA programs or craft books. (Proulx should write a craft book; that would be fun.)

Interestingly, I kept thinking of Cormac McCarthy while reading Proulx, and not just because of the cowboys and western setting. It was the visibility of the landscape that ties them together (and McCarthy of course gets blasted by Meyers for this also).

Nance Knauer said...

i haven't read A Reader's Manifesto. adding it to my list, thanks. that quote reminds me of what they said about Sarte's novels. a philosopher writing fiction but never really leaving the context of his training behind. and something i've heard in discussion a great deal lately is novelists are NOT exempt from precision and polish, that's just an assumption all of us short story writers make. *ha!

tell me more about what you're thinking in that last paragraph. the visibility of the landscape? i'm intrigued...

Clifford Garstang said...

I mean that for both McCarthy and Proulx, the land is a character in the piece, and the way people interact with it, and the way the words on the page render it, make the landscape come alive for the reader--make it visible.

organza delite said...

I didn't read the short story. I saw the movie, which has the same problem that you mentioned is in the SS: sex aside, what causes them to fall in love? I can't tell. Maybe you have to be gay to understand what they see in each other? ... Nah, that's not it either.