‘Tis the season for the coming out of recluses : First Illayaraja, famously idiosyncratic genius, performs his first live concert in decades, and even manages to enjoy it. Then, an actual, substantive Philip Roth interview appears in the Guardian. And now, Annie Proulx – who equates celebrity to being displayed on a meat rack – reluctantly talks to a few publications before the release of Brokeback Mountain, the movie based on her New Yorker short story from the late nineties.
Proulx started her career writing hunting stories for a men’s magazine, and to avoid the inevitable “What’s a name like Annie doing in a magazine like this?” – the editor wanted her to change her name to something more, well, masculine. Joe or Zack, perhaps? Finally a compromise was arrived at: Proulx added an E to her name and started writing as E.A.Proulx. Even after she became popular, the E persisted. BrokeBack Mountain was her first work as just plain Annie – even the Pulitzer winning Shipping News was credited to E. Annie Proulx. 
Most of Proulx’s tales are set in rural America, and her writing is brilliantly evocative (and unconventional and surprisingly humorous), effectively doing what she wants it to do – “make landscapes rise from the page, to appear in the camera lens of the reader’s mind.”
More than her lyrical writing, the allure of Proulx’s work lies in her steadfast refusal to glamorize a landscape that’s often a victim of its own beauty in the hands of lesser writers. Her rivers always run brown, and she’s not afraid of staining the pristine snow of the mountains with a little bit of pee. People treat animals cruelly and handsome, hardy cowboys fall in love with each other. Fly fishing is hard work, rodeo bull riders whimper when they fall and life on the whole is pretty darn hard. It is the average working class world, projected on white snowscreens.
In her own words,
It is not pastoral nostalgia that shakes me but imagined histories built on such slender clues as a rusted tobacco can nailed to a lodgepole pine and containing a miner’s claim from the last century, or an unchecked panhandle windmill boring a mad hole in the sky…
My introduction to Proulx was through The Shipping News, her Pulitzer winning book about a quintessential loser named Quoyle. Saddled with the responsibilty of raising his two daughters when his wife leaves him for another man, Quoyle decides to move his family – the kids and an old aunt – to Newfoundland. Actually, it was the Aunt’s will, and Quoyle complies. He finds a job in a newspaper office, and slowly, the family starts to settle down in the aunt’s ramshackle old home. As the gloom of winter starts to take over, Quoyle starts experiencing something close to hope.. “it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
The Shipping News is a brilliantly written book, and Proulx possesses an acute awareness of her setting and characters. Every character has a backstory, and exhibits the odd quirk or two (but never quirky enough to be caricatures) and when they all come together, it makes for a very satisfying read. Did I say brilliantly written? At unexpected moments, Proulx decides to do away with prepositions and conjunctions in her sentences, adding a wry, darkly funny tone to the writing.
Quoyle, grinning. Expected to hear they were having a kid. Already picked himself for godfather.
Quoyle at the back of the meeting, writing on his pad. Went home, typed and retyped all night at the kitchen table. In the morning, eyes circled by rings, nerved on coffee, he went to the newsroom.
And then there are the gimmicks. Each chapter begins with the description of a knot from The Ashley Book Of Knots, and after a few chapters it is fun to try and figure out what would happen based on the knot described. Here’s the first chapter:
Quoyle: A coil of rope.
A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.
For what’s essentially a catalog of a gloomy life, The Shipping News can also be incredibly funny. Quoyle tends to think in newspaper headlines, and Proulx uses this throughout the book to great effect. Just this one “trick” lightens up the book tremendously, and transforms what could have easily become a laborious literary novel into an accessible classic.
Saw the commonplaces of life as newspaper headlines. Man Walks Across Parking Lot at Moderate Pace. Women Talk of Rain. Phone Rings in Empty Room.
Here’s an excerpt.
Coming back to Brokeback Mountain, Proulx says she spent more time on this short story than she would on a novel and it shows. It is a beautiful short story. (In fact, all the stories in Close Range are great reads).
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.
Jack and Ennis end up tending sheep together on Brokeback Mountain, and their friendship turns into a sexual relationship. The change happens without ado – naturally, almost like it was destined to happen. It is cold, come in to the tent, there is enough room on the bed, then it happens. It is clich?d, but Proulx intended it to be clich?d: it is not really that different, she seems to be saying. Their love is forbidden love; Jack wants them living together but Ennis is worried about the consequences. The two of them part ways and try to lead “normal” lives – wives, kids – while pining for each other. And then,… I won’t give it away, just read it if you can get hold of it somewhere.
Update: A Brokeback Mountan FAQ at annieproulx.com.
And a Falstaff review of the movie.
: I got this from the Complete New Yorker, which is my stranded-on-a-desert-book now. Ok, DVD, but still.