The Mud Below by Annie Proulx

“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.

Wyoming is central to a story such as The Mud Below
The cowboy is so central to Wyoming identity that a bucking bronco features on its licence plate.

It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection of Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx. I read Close Range about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.

As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.

Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.

 

The Mud Below as it appeared in The New Yorker

STORYWORLD

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The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”

Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.

The Masters Review

Contains spoilers, as usual.

Actually this is a bull near our house in Australia.

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What Is A Motif, Visual Motif and Leitmotif?

A visual motif is a subcategory of the motif. First, what is a motif?

A motif is a recurring pattern. 

When related images repeat to enhance or bring attention to an idea, you know you’ve identified the story’s motif. It’s not a motif unless there is symbolic or thematic significance in the story. Simple repetition does not equal ‘motif’. A motif is like a symbol, but symbols are widely understood by the culture, whereas a motif might be specific/unique to the work at hand. We’re learning what the motif means within the story as the story progresses. That’s why repetition is necessary.

A motif might be:

  • a sound
  • an action
  • an object
  • a character
  • a literary device
  • a word/phrase
  • an image

A visual motif is a repeating pattern in the visual arts.

In film noir, an example of a visual motif would be the use of shadow to obscure part of a character’s face.

shadow motif
Here we have shadow used as a motif for a duplicitous personality, one side good, one side bad.

A visual motif in a film (or a story app) isn’t necessarily a static image. Hitchcock repeatedly made use of mirror shots and divided screens, which became a visual motif. He also made much use of light and shadow. There were reasons for this, which is what makes it a motif. See also: 10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime from io9.

In our storybook app Midnight Feast, lights are used as a visual motif throughout. As lights dance around Roya, she fails to ‘see the light’ — she fails to see what’s right outside her own window.

A leitmotif is a repeating pattern in the musical arts.

In music, a leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

In films and plays a leitmotif is a specific melody is associated to character or a given situation or a given setting. For example, a triangle which accompanies repeated actions to cumulative effect.

But how is this any different from ‘repetition’, right? As in choruses or any sort of repeated musical sequence?

First, the answer in relation to music:

When repetition in music becomes identified with a character, it is called a “leitmotif”.

— Howard Suber

Next, the answer in relation to literature:

In literature leitmotifs often present as sound devices such as alliteration, rhyme and onomatopoeia:

Examples of leitmotif from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce:

“wasching the walters of, the weltering walters off. Whyte.”

“and watch her waters of her sillying waters of”

“And his dithering dathering waltzers of. Stright!”

“arride the winnerful wonders off, the winnerful wonnerful wanders off”

“baffling with the walters of, hoompsydoompsy walters of. High!”

“Amingst the living waters of, the living in giving waters of. Tight!”

Leitmotifs are also said to be present in the works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, Chuck Palahniuk, and Julian Barnes, among several other writers.

The work of Annie Proulx, too, has been described in terms of the leitmotif, notably in relation to an opera adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, in which leitmotif describes actual music:

[In adapting the short story for stage] Wuorinen says that he wanted to do something that the film didn’t: instead of the beautifying effects of the cinematography on the mountainous landscape of the North American West, the opera returns to the sense of threat, of danger, of hard-fought existence that the Wyoming mountains are really about, something that’s there in the story but less apparent in Ang Lee’s film. You can hear that even in the brief excerpts from the opera that underscore this interview: the mountain looms in that ominous orchestral chord, which becomes a kind of leitmotif for the multiple threats to Jack and Ennis’ love as the opera develops.

The Guardian

But below, the word ‘leitmotif’ is used to describe not a musical but the musicality of Proulx’s prose — a voice she uses for her darkly comic stories:

One of the clues that Annie Proulx’s short stories cannot be taken too literally lies in the leitmotif of the Devil, which reappears as a character in several marvelous stories as well as in the character’s quotidian imagery and sociolect. These more comical, satirical stories casting the Devil and his demons as protagonists seem to have been born from fantasies set free by folklore, by postmodern lifestyle, and by the hellish living and natural conditions in Wyoming.

— Bénédicte Meillon

In this case Meillon could probably  have simply used the word ‘motif’, but wanted to emphasise the musicality of the prose.

Then we have the mnemonic leitmotif, though I’m not sure if anyone other than James Wood uses this term. I’m not even sure if the phrase is redundant, since the whole reason for a leitmotif is to impress something upon the audience’s memory.

Tolstoy uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif — a repeated attribute or characteristic — to secure the vitality of his characters.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works