“Bedrock” is a short story from Annie Proulx’s collection Heart Songs, published 1999. This is a subversive feminist tale, which challenges the readers assumptions about ‘gold-digger’ women and especially those we dismiss as ‘rednecks’.
“Bedrock” makes a good mentor text if you:
- Are writing a story in which the reader is asked to switch sympathies, or to question their sympathies after a reveal. Another story which does this is “Shut Up And Dance”, from season three of Black Mirror. Asking an audience to consider our empathies after revelation that a character is a sexual predator is especially subversive in the current political climate. While Annie Proulx is not well-known for being a feminist writer, this is a subversively feminist story (but only if you read until the end, which can be a problem). Proulx makes use of writing tricks to help us empathise with Perley more than Maureen in the beginning: He is old and perhaps incapable of maintaining his farm; he has a wife who doesn’t cook food he likes and who won’t touch him in bed; his previous wife died; his new wife is changing everything about what’s ‘rightfully’ his house; the reader is unlikely to ‘approve’ of the modifications, since her taste is grotesquely kitsch.
- Related to that, this story is an excellent case study in how to make that transition between sympathetic and alienating character. Annie Proulx uses details — before we learn that Perley is a pedophile we are shown him on a pillow cover cross-stitched with Dutch girls, for instance.
- If you are composing an opening sentence which you want to carry different meaning when the reader comes back to it a second time. This is probably because you’ve guided the reader into a new way of thinking by the final paragraph, and now they’re curious to re-read, wondering how on earth that happened. In short, subversive stories are especially well-suited to an opening sentence with a revised-different meaning.
- Or if you’d like a model of how to create an opening paragraph which stands as a condensed, metaphorical version of the entire story.
- Annie Proulx makes heavy use of something similar to a ‘transferred epithet’. I don’t think her descriptions count as that exactly because the epithets describe the objects as well as the humans (not instead 0of). We might instead call this technique a kind of pathetic fallacy. A flawed character looks through flawed glass (when it’s his vision of the world which is flawed).
- Perhaps no more than many other of Proulx’s short stories, but this is another excellent example of a main character described as part of the landscape. In this case, an old farmer literally feels like he’s turning into stone. This ties in with the title — this is a story about beds and who we share them with. If we share our bed with the wrong person it feels hard as rock:
Atoms of this granite whirled in his body. Its stony, obdurate qualities passed up through the soil and into plant roots. Whenever he took potatoes from the heat-cracked bowl, his bones were hardened, his blood fortified. But Maureen, he knew, was shot through with some wild astral substance so hard and dense that granite powdered into dust beneath her blows.
- ‘It was a very sharp, clear day when he began to lose the farm’. This marks the transition from backstory to ‘frontstory’, which is a little similar to how picture book writers switch from iterative to singulative.
- Proulx likes one-syllable words, which can be seen in the names she often picks for her characters (though not in this particular story so much). In a phonetic emulation of the hard, unforgiving landscape she uses words like ‘crump’ and ‘blat’, with their hard sounds that make them sound like curse words without actually being curse words. Notice, too, how ‘crump‘ and ‘blat‘ are being used as nouns. Some words are both verbs and nouns, but Proulx thinks nothing of turning a good-sounding verb into a noun as she sees fit.
- Foreshadowing such as ‘The guilty scents of willow pollen and the river in spring flooded the room, the looming shape of the past was suddenly uncovered like a hand pulled away from a face. He seemed to feel drying mud beneath his nails.‘
- Colour motifs — the colour blue is connected to Maureen, who likes a blue variety of potato which I believe Annie Proulx made up — ‘brute’ potatoes, perhaps a riff on ‘butte’? For more on fantasy food, listen to this podcast. Perley and Maureen get married in (cold, white and blue) winter, which contrasts against the first time he married, late summer, under a cast of yellow. Perley himself is connected to the colour yellow, which at first is presented to the reader as something happy (connected to summer and warmth), but the wonderful thing about the colour yellow is that it can be used both ways, and when something can be used for both positive reasons and negative, you can count on Annie Proulx making the most of that. Yellow also indicates old age and sickness. (Another example of Proulx using both sides of a word is in “Heart Songs“, in which a woman is sweet and fruity and delicious, but the blackberry is also an invasive weed, so that particular romance is naturally, fatalistically doomed.
CHARACTERS OF “BEDROCK”
The story opens with Maureen, splitting wood in a bare yard surrounded by a circle of broken bark. This is a subtle way of setting her up as a witch. (According to witchcraft, a magic circle can protect you from harm.) The dark sky and lightning paint a picture that could come straight out of Sabrina.
The bark itself is broken — almost a transferred epithet, if the bark were not also broken, because later we learn that Maureen is herself broken. But she is wielding an axe. The broken will become breaker. This is a masterful opening scene, a nutshell version of the entire story.
Maureen is four years younger than Perley’s own daughter.
Like an archetypal witch, her weapon of choice is poison. We first learn of this when Perley detects a sugary taste under his denture.
Significantly, when we are first introduced to Perley, he is watching her. On a re-read, it is very creepy. This is how he preyed on her in the first instance — watching the girl as she worked. He’s watching her braid bouncing — long hair in a braid is a symbol of girlhood more than anything. Through Perley’s eyes we see her girlishness. This is what attracts him.
Perley’s daughter at first seems a wholly unsympathetic character. She is the classic unaccepting child, rejecting the new step-parent to the detriment of her father’s happiness, concerned only about inheritance. But by the end of the story it’s clear that there’s an entire backstory of Lily and her father, and she has good reason to reject him. In a small community, it’s impossible to think she doesn’t know about her father’s pedophilia.
One paragraph tells us that Lily identifies more with her mother than with her father. Lily knew why the mother had saved a poem — to put on the gravestone — whereas her father had no clue.
The off-stage character — Perley’s widow. In close-third-person from Perley’s point of view, we learn that Netta had a ‘low, dry voice’, and that their conversation was functional but not companionable. She had houseplants
I’m not convinced Lily has married well. Samuel has empathy for his father-in-law and suggests the way to fix his loneliness is to marry again.
A romantic potential for Perley, before Maureen comes along. But Perley can’t imagine cohabiting with a woman stuck with the task of bringing up her grandchildren rather than let the state take them. In short, although Perley wants a partner, he wants one without ‘baggage’, even though he himself has baggage, and women his own age are stuck in these caregiving roles and therefore, that in itself, makes them less attractive to same-aged men. Annie Proulx obviously sees this common late-life marriage issue for exactly what it is.
Maureen’s older brother and also an abuser, using his younger sister, who is already ‘damaged goods’, to take over the old man’s farm, despite knowing the sacrifice on his sister’s part.
STORYWORLD OF “BEDROCK”
Another regional critique embedded in Heart Songs sees Proulx swing to the opposite pole from New England’s conventional portrayals, balancing their romanticism not with realism but with impoverishment and grotesquerie as if to shock, rather than persuade, her readers into questioning what they may think they know about the region. In “Bedrock,” the ageing farmer Perley is finagled into marrying the much younger Maureen Mackie. Almost immediately, she takes over the operation of the farm and savagely beats Perley when he tries to object. The farm runs to ruin, and Perley spends less and less time in the house while Maureen sleeps with her brother in the bedroom. At the end of the story, we learn that this entire episode is the Mackies’ revenge for Perley’s having raped Maureen when she was a child. The physical and imaginative center of “Stone City” is the long-abandoned compound of the Stone family. As one character describes them,
They had all these shacks with broken-down rusty cars out front, piles of lumber and empty longnecks and pieces of machinery that might come in handy sometime, the weeds growin’ up all crazy through ’em everywhere. The Stone boys was all wild, jacked deer, trapped bear, dynamited trout pools, made snares, shot strange dogs wasn’t their own and knocked up every girl they could put it to. Yessir, they was some bunch.
Rural farmhouses, Proulx seems to be saying, can be facades for all manner of human perversity, and the pastoral hills breed horrifying social pathologies and violence. This is not the sort of thing that makes it into Vermont Life.
— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
This ‘facade’ of a pastoral idyll is also known as an ‘apparent utopia’. Suburban areas of cities are often used as apparent utopias, too.
While Proulx may attempt to reverse the polarity of Vermont from charming to chilling, it remains an exotic place apart, a screen upon which visitors can project their desires for a different and somehow more fulfilling life.
— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
For all their knowledge of the land and how to live on it, Proulx’s rural characters are not idealised as “nature’s noblemen.” They are not merely victims of a national market economy that has made their ways of earning a living obsolete, or of the intrusion of influences from outsiders and the media that has weakened and in some cases destroyed aspects of traditional culture. In these stories Proulx depicts the effects of years of poverty, backbreaking work, domestic violence, incest, rape, and anger that sometimes smoulders for decades before it erupts in acts of revenge. The stories often end with ironic twists of characters’ expectations, for which Proulx has prepared the careful reader with earlier clues.
— Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEDROCK”
Perley has a dangerous attraction to a young woman which has harmed her and now, in his old age, it will harm him.
He wants a wife to fill the hole of his dead one. If not a wife, then a sexual partner.
Bobhot (a clear opponent) and Maureen (who presented at first, to a desperate old man as an ally).
Perley asks his daughter to help him, but she won’t.
He watches the farm from nearby woods, as if he’s an outsider. We’re not told directly but are left to infer that he’s waiting for a chance to strike.
When Bobhot is drunk, Perley attacks him in the kitchen with a pry bar.
Perley is well aware of his own voyeuristic tendencies, but now he realises it’s been reciprocated:
They must have seen him, too, in his warm woolen jacket, driving the shiny truck along the road with his little daughter beside him, the new freezer. They stared at the house every time they went past the farm.
We don’t know if Bobhot and Maureen will return in the morning to finish their poison job on Perley, but there’s nothing in the text which suggests this will happen. More likely, in line with Proulx’s pessimistic view — the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.