Negatives by Annie Proulx Short Story

“Negatives” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1994 in Esquire, later included in the Heart Songs collection. You can read it online, with limited unpaid access. “Negatives” is the most brutal of the stories in this collection. Content note for rape.

Reasons to read this story:

  • If you’re writing a short story and think it may benefit from a ‘separatised’ introduction which forewarns the reader basically how it’s going to unfold. I do wonder at what part of Annie Proulx’s writing process she wrote that introduction. Did she write the rest of the story then realise it needed a little something at the beginning? That’s be interesting to know.
  • In any case, the way Proulx unfolds the story, mentioning the bath scene in the men’s dialogue, then later showing us the scene where Albina asks to have the bath that first time, is an interesting, spirally way to tell a story, and structuring a plot like this leaves the reader with the feeling of a vast unfolding, and even a short story feels like it has many layers.
  • Pathetic fallacy written beautifully: ‘The mountain pressed into the room with an insinuation of augury. Flashing particles of ice dust stippled the air around the house. The wind shook the walls and liquid shuddered in the glass.
  • A character dehumanised, in this case by turning Albina into a dog, in Walter’s eyes. Annie Proulx achieves this partly by telling us about Walter’s fantasises, as relayed at dinner parties, but eventually by stripping her naked. Her physical description also aligns somewhat with that of a dog, as well as the smell she leaves behind in a car (as dogs are inclined to do). Her children have ‘sown the back seat of his car with nits’, and she spends a lot of time sleeping in there. Dogs also sleep a lot. She hangs around like a stray, asking for an increasing amount of scraps. Nor does she retaliate, biting her owner’s hand, when abused like a dog. Her hair is short, ‘like fur’. Everything about Albina is dog-like.
  • A story with no clear ‘main character’: The character who changes (is traumatised) the most is a head we’re not allowed into.
  • This is because “Negatives” is basically what I call a ‘travelling devil’ story, which upends the ‘travelling angel’ trope.
  • The way Proulx writes about the changing of a season, mirroring the change in character emotion, ending the paragraph by honing back in on the characters of this particular story:

THE DEEP AUTUMN CAME QUICKLY. Abandoned cats and dogs skulked along the roads. The flare of leaves died, the mountain molted into gray-brown like a dull bird. A mood of destruction erupted when a bull got loose at the cattle auction house and trampled an elderly farmer, when a car was forced off the road by pimpled troublemakers throwing pumpkins. Hunters came for the deer and blood trickled along their truck fenders. Walter took pictures of them leaning against their pickups. Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

PHOTOGRAPHY SYMBOLISM IN “NEGATIVES”

As Karen Lane Rood writes:

[Negatives is} another story about outsiders’ misperceptions of the rural poor [and] speaks to another of Proulx’s ongoing interests: the various meanings of photographs and–by extension–of her own art.

— Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

Electric Arrows“, from the same collection, opens with a photograph. In that story, photographs function narratively as a base from which the storyteller skip backwards and forwards in time. The photography motif in “Negatives” is– as the title punnily suggests — far darker than that. This story is about how rich people see poor people–as snapshots rather than as rounded individuals with entire lives of their own. Rich see them as grotesques, which — in the days before mainstream digital photography — is exactly how I felt looking at anyone in a film reel — the teeth are black, the whites of the eyes are black. Film negatives make a grotesquerie of anyone.

film reel negative

Proulx’s treatment of Walter and his photographs shows her realization of the danger inherent in his art. Walter’s photographs are expressions of his vision, not representations of reality. They are ‘choked down and spare, out-of-focus, the horizons tilted, unrecognizable objects looming in the foreground, the heads of people quartered and halved.’ His best photograph, he thinks, is one of a small house with an arbor: “Guests sorting through the photographs kept coming back to this dull scene until gradually the image of the house showed its secret hostility, the arbor turned harsh and offensive, the heavy grass bent with rage. The strength of the photograph emerged through the viewer’s eye was itself a developing medium. It would have happened faster, said Buck, if Walter wrote out the caption: The House where Ernest and Lora cool were Bludgeoned by the Son, Buxton Cool.’ Buck is not interested in Walter’s explanation: “If you have to say what something’s about, […] it’s not about anything except you saying it’s about something”. Buck and his friends want Walter to take nature photographs, to create beautiful pictures that do not disturb their carefully created serenity. Barb Cigar wants Walter to photograph the “lovely perfect leaves” on her trees.

— Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

CHARACTERS IN “NEGATIVES”

SYMBOLIC NAMES

In “Negatives”, Proulx sketches characters who approach grotesque caricatures. Their names provide essential clues about their psyches. Buck B. has a name that is both tough sounding and cute. It is appropriate for someone who seems essentially asexual and comically naive in his desire to avoid anything disturbing in art or life; yet, as a wealthy man, he exerts power over others and harms them by his indifference. Bucks’ friend Barb Cigar is more dangerous, and more masculine, than Buck. Walter Welter’s name suggest his underlying sadism, while Albina Muth is the white moth drawn to Walter’s destructive flame for immolation.

— Karen Lane Rood, Understanding Annie Proulx

Walter Welter — Proulx doesn’t shy away from poetic (borderline ridiculous) names. When I think ‘Welter’ I think of ‘welt’ — someone causing damage to skin with a strap. Walter is a photographer who moves in with a wealthy lover, Buck B. He has a fanciful, gossipy imagination and makes up stories about Albina Muth to entertain Buck’s dinner guests. Eventually Walter agrees to take a series of photos of Albina. As background he chooses an abandoned poorhouse and requires her to pose in increasingly degrading positions. Karen Lane Rood describes Walter’s feelings towards Albina as ‘eroticised hostility’ and I think this is a perfect term. This term has only become more and more useful — back in 1994 few had viewed pornography via the Internet. Now it’s common, as is the ‘eroticised, hostile’ feeling, I suspect.

Buck B — Another alliterative name, joining the two men symbolically together. Buck has been forced to retire from his job as the host of a children’s TV show. He’s come to northern New England for the scenery. In time for his arrival, he’s built a massive glass house on a mountainside. He takes up with the hobby of pottery, because isn’t that what rural, rustic people do?

Albina Muth — Albina is a poor, malnourished, unkempt woman whose age I revised downwards as I read. Buck dismissively calls her ‘The Local Downtrodden’. She lives with an abusive husband, and leaves him over the course of this story. With nowhere to go, she starts sleeping in Buck’s Mercedes, leaving behind a smell that Buck finds repulsive. This is the ultimate rich-poor juxtaposition. She begs Walter to take her picture, though we are never allowed inside Albina’s head, so we don’t know what’s motivating her. We can only guess. When someone takes your picture, for a moment at least, you feel important.

Barb Cigar — One of Buck’s new friends, whose aesthetic sensibility stands in direct opposition to Walter’s. She would like Walter to take a photo of her tree, which has sprouted pretty leaves, but Walter is caught up in the art movement of the 1980s and 1990s, in which there was a move away from ‘pretty’ photography into the aesthetics of the grim. Wabi sabi, with exaggerated emphasis on the sabi. Barb herself is a masculine figure compared to a dog due to the skin folds around her mouth.

Walter’s photographer friends — off the page, but we get snippets of dialogue on the phone. I read them as not just geographically but also emotionally distant types, who are all caught up in this idea that nothing means anything — nihilistic criticism — and there’s no point looking for meaning because art only means something to the person who took it or made it. (I wonder what Proulx’s own outlook is, regarding criticism and reviews of her work.)

STORYWORLD OF “NEGATIVES”

YEAR AFTER YEAR rich people moved into the mountains and built glass houses at high elevations; at sunset, when the valleys were smothered in leathery shadow, the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signaling for the attack.

— “Negatives” opening sentence

The opening of “Negatives” packs a whole lot of storyworld information into one sentence. Proulx is gifted in economy. (Some even call her ‘elliptical’ — as stories progress you have to fill in the gaps yer own self.)

The large house made mostly out of glass is freighted with symbolism in any work of fiction. I’ve yet to see a happy fictional family living inside a glass house. In the TV series Nashville, Juliette lives in a massive glass house but she’s pretty far from happy. A house is an outworking of the characters living inside it — more so in fiction than in real life. What is it about glass houses? Is it because they cost so much to heat, so we think of them as cold? Or is it because there’s no real barrier between the inhabitants and the difficulties of the outside world, so the house fails to provide protection? Anyone can see into a house made of glass.

Heliodor is a word I had to look up — it’s a yellow crystal. ‘Heliodor radiates the warmth and power of sunshine,’ apparently. So I guess Proulx is using it ironically. Is Proulx taking the mick out of crystal healers?

Heliodor has been used as a talisman to bring out honesty in others, and to regain what has been lost in terms of employment, prospects or money. It is an excellent crystal for the self-employed, or for those who struggle to balance care-giving and career.

In the workplace, Heliodor boosts drive and determination to succeed if others have worn away your enthusiasm. Carry or wear Heliodor to persuade others to back you financially or with resources.

BIRD SYMBOLISM

The newest of these aeries belonged to Buck B., a forcibly retired television personality attracted to scenery.

— “Negatives” second sentence

An aerie refers to the nest of a bird and includes the following associations: it is at high elevation, the bird is a bird of prey (e.g. an eagle) and it is secluded. Next, we’re told (comically) that a few weeks after Buck B arrives, Walter Welter is ‘disgorged’ into the town. This is a verb especially reminiscent of birds of prey: When bald eagles approach scavengers like dogs, gulls or vultures at carrion sites, they are known to aggressively attack them and try to force them to disgorge their food. (Annie Proulx is a master of verbs. I believe she has read a lot of non-fiction. Look at her publishing credits and she’s written a lot of rural-themed non-fiction too, before she found widespread publishing success with fiction in middle age.)

SIMILARITIES TO THE STORYWORLD OF “HEART SONGS”

Rural Vermont, suggests Proulx, is a dark force that affects most characters. In “Negatives,” for instance, the sadistic Walter Welter, recently relocated to Vermont, exploits the greasy, pitiful Albina Muth, photographing her nude in a series of increasingly humiliating poses that culminates in her falling through a rotting iron stove, where he gropes then rapes her. Even an “elderly curtain rod salesman” is “made such a satyr by rural retirement” that his live-in lover had to be “rushed twice to the emergency room.” The pathetic Snipe in “Heart Songs” is captivated by the “brushy, tangled land,” “and old pick up truck abandoned in a ditch” and a “secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth.” Snipe succeeds in his quest, seducing “fat Nell,” a local farmer’s wife whom Snipe mistakes for his daughter; he then writes a series of bad checks at a local mall.

— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt

The image of a dishevelled woman crawling into an oven is of course reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, the most enduring tale of its category, and the fairytale most symbolic of the forest. For writers, the forest can be anything at all: a cathedral, a utopian retreat, a place full of edible riches. For Annie Proulx — no surprise — the forest is a place of immorality and debauchery.

“NEGATIVES” AND SYMBOLISM OF THE FOREST

Something about the heavily forested New England landscape’s potential to encourage this sort of immortality and even debauchery was also felt by Puritans centuries ago. Puritans felt that the wild forest at the boundaries of their settlements was a place encouraging a form of moral deterioration that would lead to outright wickedness; they believed that “morality and social order seemed to stop at the edge of the clearing.”

— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt

SIMILARITIES TO “YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN”

Indeed, the satyre-like behaviour exhibited by Walter Welter and the “elderly curtain rod salesman” hearkens back to Nathanial Hawthorn’s “Young goodman Brown,” when the protagonist leaves the village of Salem and ventures into the forest at night, only to hear rumors of sexual misconduct. In “Heart Songs”, as in Hawthorne’s tale, the remote forest context encourages if not determines characters’ behaviour. The curtain rod salesman is ‘made’ to do deviant acts, and Welter and Snipe experience an accelerated process of moral decay.

— The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt

STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEGATIVES”

The time span of a story is symbolically important, whether it take place over the course of years, a year, a season, day or hour. Annie Proulx tells us right away that this story doesn’t last a year.

But it was all over before the first snow and no one had to do a thing.

The reader is therefore prepared for something bad to happen. But what, and to who? Not to these guys — the inverse of travelling angels (I call it the travelling devil trope) — wreaking havoc wherever they go, then toddling off on their rich, merry ways. The opening therefore serves as a frame for the ‘main narrative’, which is the series of events between Walter and Buck moving in and leaving.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Buck: He lives with a guy who brings trouble into his house. He has a poor taste in partners. His weakness is he can’t see (admit) what’s going on under his nose, until he suddenly does. Buck’s lack of power (despite his financial power) is symbolised by his limp.

Walter: Attracted to the dark underbelly of life and treats human beings of this world the same as he treats his objects. He justifies his actions by invoking the cause of high art.

Albina: The most vulnerable of the three main characters. She’s trying to escape from an abusive husband, who must be stalking her. She can’t go home, she can’t go to the mall. These days, this pattern of behaviour is known as ‘coercive control’. But like Buck, Albina can’t see Walter’s terribly dark side until it’s too late for her. She has low expectations of life and men, and as long as someone’s paying her attention (via taking her photo, for instance) then she will put up with a lot.

DESIRE

Buck: To live his own version of a rural life, surrounded by friends, engaged in hobbies.

Walter: To take photographs of down-and-out things, which stands in for how he’s attracted to darkness in general. He revels in terrible things.

Albina: To avoid her abusive husband, and to be seen as someone important, even for a moment.

OPPONENT

Buck’s opponent is Walter, and by extension Albina, who he doesn’t want in the house.

Walter’s opponent is Buck, because Buck is starting to see through to his baser nature and Walter is trying (not very hard) to disguise it.

Albina’s opponent is Walter, who appears as one thing and turns out to be another abusive man in her life.

PLAN

Buck: No plans but to live his dinner party, pottery life, in a rural area full of derelict families. Despite his big glass house, he plans to keep those derelicts on the other side of his walls. He tells Walter not to let Albina into (first) his car and (next) his house.

Walter: To pretend he’s not developing some kind of obsession with Albina, then ‘reluctantly’ agree to take her picture. This will goad her into a sense of safety.

Albina: Mistaking Walter’s interest as benign, Albina plans to sit in his partner’s Mercedes to escape her abusive husband, then to persuade him to let her bath, and finally to take her picture.

BATTLE

The first part of the Battle takes place inside the poor house and inside the oven. This is between Walter and Albina. Walter gets what he wants, which makes Walter the winner.

The second part takes place between Walter and Buck, back at the house, after it is revealed Buck has seen the entire thing from his massive glass windows.

SELF-REVELATION

The Self-revelation belongs to Buck, who has seen what we as reader just saw, but uncomfortably up close. This aligns Buck more closely to the reader than the other two characters.

Proulx does something interesting with the Self-revelation, though, because people don’t tell the truth, not even to ourselves. Buck tells Walter to get out because it’s getting ‘too cold’. He doesn’t like the ‘stink’ in his car. He never lets on he saw what he saw. For all we know, he’ll pretend, even to himself, that he never saw that. He only acknowledges, for now, that he doesn’t want to be with Walter. Narratively, the Self-revelation has happened, but perhaps only in part.

The reader, in contrast, knows exactly what Walter is like.

The reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. This is an example of delayed decoding, which Annie Proulx is famous for. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:

Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Annie Proulx has written an ambiguous ending with a comic flourish by ending with ‘He tried it’.

I deduce Walter did leave — he seemed happy to go — but he may not have left with the negatives. Buck may have successfully stopped him doing that. I hope so.