Archive for September 18th, 2008

September 18, 2008

The Universe According to Annie Proulx; or, Fine Just the Way It Is

by cowboylands

Don’t read Annie Proulx’s newest book. Don’t read it if you have a drop of sentimentality about the West, if you call cowboys heroes, or if you smile fondly at pictures of cacti and coyotes or eat funnel cake and ice cream as you buy souvenir T-shirts in quaint little western towns. Proulx’s Fine Just the Way It Is will crush you.

It will destroy you as surely as if you were caught without water on a “I’m just going to take a short little jaunt” hike in the desert. As surely as the Grand Canyon will suck you in if you are goofing off at the edge of the cliff. As surely as a living on minimum wage or less with a large family to feed will grind you to a nub. 

Her characters and slice-of-life plots will take you out without a backwards glance, without even noticing. Because that is the West, dear readers. A huge and dangerous presence that exists on a different scale and pace than the mortal beings that inhabit it. We can cover up this juggernaut with smooth highways and air-conditioning. We can gussy it up with pretty Victorian towns and luxurious resorts. We can Disney-fy it and Photoshop it with glowing heroic edges. But when it comes down to Human Being/West, the juxtaposition, itself a conflict, has an outcome that is inevitable, awful, and brutal.  


There are those who live in harmony with the western land. Annie Proulx’s stories are not about those people. 


Proulx writes about the West as it is: nursing homes, tourists at the lip of the Grand Canyon, line shacks without woodpiles, blizzards. Handwritten notes faded by sun, shallow graves without headstones, a storm that freezes multiple counties at once. And what is truly terrible is that the reader knows what was written, knows who lies beneath the soil, knows the life that was snuffed out, a life simultaneously and beautifully interdependent and individual, and yet–as if in a nightmare–the reader is mute. We read, and rather than being able to identify with the protagonist (becoming “like” the vengeful gunslinger as in pulp westerns) we are forced to become the omniscient West-presence: distant, untouchable, terrible. 

“Family Man” stresses the code of family–a common theme of western literature and films. At its best, family/community loyalty was a defense (call it Fort Interdependence) against an uncivilized wilderness. At its worst, it was a feudal castle, with all the folks who weren’t related becoming vassals to the lords of the land. In “Family Man” Proulx breaks open the familiar theme to find the essence within. But woe to the reader! Personifying the West is elderly Ray Forkenbrock, who reveals a secret that has been eating at his moral code for years. His daughter’s response to learning this, and his convulsive reaction, are as subtle and potentially devastating as a thundercloud on the horizon. 

A well-respected author will mix things up; her…allegory, shall I call it?…of the devil in Hell is unexpected, weird, and off-putting. Not unfamiliar to those who come across the weird, unexpected and off-putting in the West. Things get Western in her book at that point. You have to cowboy up and take it, if you can. 

Another piece, “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” may make you crawl under the kitchen table and curl up in a fetal position. As it spins the story of lives on the fringe of society, the question about who wins the conflict between land and people isn’t answered. It isn’t even asked. It’s a moot point. As a glacier scrapes the trees and soil from the rock, so the beating hearts and vivid dreams of humans are ground away by the West. 

Does the West need mythic Cowboys? was the question a few weeks ago in High Country News and Cowboylands, capably addressed by Batboy42, et al. We mused about the importance of these cowboy heroes and stories, the underpinnings of stereotypes and archetypes of the West. And then spake Annie Proulx. 

Myths are usually of unknown provenance–their origins are dim. They explain a belief or practice, often religious. They or the characters within them embody visionary ideals. Whose ideals? Ours. Human. Mortal. In Fine Just the Way It Is the West is the all-encompassing concept. Whose concept? Not ours, ever more dear reader, but a being or universe beyond human scale. The myths in her newest book explain the world as it is: an inner and outer space so vast, that a crossing should not ever be attempted.