Stone City by Annie Proulx

stone city

“Stone City” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1979, collected 20 years later in Heart Songs. Some of Proulx’s short stories are like compacted novels, and “Stone City” is one of those. The story of the humans is wrapped by the story of a fox, looking in from a slight distance. “Stone City” is a good example of what some literature academics call ‘delayed coding’.

For writers, “Stone City” makes a good mentor text:

  • If you’re building a story which is partly from the point of view of an animal. The fox is linked to a human character, Noreen Pineaud, who is described as like a fox. “Stone City” is therefore a good example of how to make use of animal imagery and, more importantly, how to link this imagery to the Anagnorisis part of a story.
  • For description of a setting which is a character in itself:

It was an abandoned farm vine between two ridges, no roads in or out, only a faint track choked with viburnum and alder. The property, shaped like an eye, was bordered on the back by a stream. Popple and spruce had invaded the hay fields, and the broken limbs of the apple trees hung to the ground.

The buildings were gone, collapsed into cellar holes of rotting beams. Blackberry brambles boiled out of the crumbling foundations and across a fallen blue door that half-blocked a cellar hole.

  • A storyteller narrator, who tells a story within a story, jumping back and forth in chronology, with events linked thematically rather than by time.
  • Related to the storyteller voice, in this story Proulx is especially economical with language. Instead of saying, ‘A bell tinkled and Brittany came into the field to pick [the birds] up. Banger followed close behind. Then he said  said…’ Proulx leaves out the ‘Banger followed close behind’ detail. We infer that if Banger has started talking, Banger is now on the scene.
  • Perhaps this is only noticeable because I recently read all the first and second volume of Grimm fairytales back to back, but there are subtle fairytale elements in “Stone City”. For instance, the way Banger’s dog sleeps behind the stove. This is where old people almost about to die spend their days in Grimm fairytales. Then of course there’s the Hansel and Gretel plot of finding an unexpected dwelling in the middle of the wilderness, the ‘sugarhouse’ of Banger is almost reminiscent of the gingerbread house. When Banger turns off ‘accidentally’ and takes the narrator home for dinner, was that really an accident, or on purpose? The nearby fox, circling the town, waiting for a chance to pounce/trick.



WHAT HAPPENS IN “STONE CITY”

The following provides a summary of what happens from Karen Lane Rood. I’ve emboldened the parts which give a clue as to the narration and structure:

“Stone City” examines several acts of revenge that have wider consequences than in “On the Antler,” as the narrator, a newcomer to Chopping County, gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. He learns that the abandoned farm everyone calls Stone City was once the property of the first settlers of the county — a “real old family, and a real bad family”. During the lifetimes of the current residents, old man Stone was known as the “meanest bastard” and his children shared a reputation for being wild and mean. One of those children, Floyd Stone, finally brought the wrath of the community on the whole Stone family when—after waiting for a seventy-three-car train to pass—he shot and killed the man standing on the caboose. Several hundred law men converged on Stone City and tore down a flimsy house to get Floyd and arrest him. Then the local starred and feathered the rest of the Stone men. Old man Stone retaliated by burning out Banger, one of the leaders of the mob, killing Banger’s wife and child in the process.

Floyd was eventually electrocuted, and by the time the narrator arrives in town, the Stones seem to exist only as a fearful memory. The narrator hears much of the Stones’ story from Banger, a talkative man known for his skills as a hunter. He lives alone with his much=loved hunting dog and seems to have been motivated for his part in the mob by an earlier act of violence. While hunting with the narrator in the abandoned Stone City, Banger explains that he used to hunt there as a child, and that once old man Stone chased him away “with number six birdshot. Still got the little pick scars acrost my back”.

When Banger’s dog is found dead in a trap set for foxes near Stone City, Banger blames old man Stone. In fact, the trap belongs to the son of Floyd Stone’s illegitimate son, a teenager who might have found the dog in time to save it if he had tended his trapline more diligently. After Banger moves away, the narrator discovers that Banger had bought Stone City for back taxes years earlier. Still, the narrator concludes, “The Stones owned it and they always would”. Proulx, however, suggests the vanity of any concept of human land ownership within the larger context of geological time. The story is punctuated with a series of vignettes about a fox whose range includes Stone City. Too smart to be caught in a trap, the fox survives to father another generation in a new den built under a cellar foundation in Stone City.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

NARRATION

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In narratology terms, “Stone City” is a story within a story, within (or alongside) the story of the fox. Annie Proulx employs this method for other stories in this collection, including “On The Antler”, though in that case the narrator seems to be a long-time resident of Chopping County. This time she’s chosen a newcomer, which makes sense for this particular narrative. Both stories feature a storyteller character aside from the narrator storyteller themselves, but in the case of Stone City, the newcomer status of the narrator allows for realistic revelations which delve into the dark underbelly of the community. When the narrator is a newcomer to an arena, this allows the reader to sit on the shoulder of the narrator and make discoveries in a simulation of real time.

Metadiegetic (Level 1): The story of the fox who finds a new home.

Diegetic (Level 0): Without any awareness of the omniscient fox, the narrator moves to Chopping County and gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a ‘storyteller’. This narrator will tell us the story of Banger, who tells us the story of Stone City…

Hypodiegetic (Level -1): Refers to the embedded narrative in which Banger tells the narrator (and us) the history of Stone City. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator. Banger is the hypodiegetic narrator.

OTHER STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES

FORESHADOWING

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted. As in The Shipping News, family secrets and hidden traumas emerge only gradually, so that the truth is revealed to the narrator in fragments, which he has to piece together. In that respect, the outsider may also be seen as an image of the reader, to whom Proulx assigns a great responsibility. Because these stories, as well as Proulx’s novels, do not rely on a strong plot, the reader has to be on her guard at all times, since what appears to be a descriptive passage, for example, may turn out to be the key to a mystery that unfolds as the story progresses. At the same time, the reader cannot know which of the story’s elements will turn out to be clues, nor is it certain that all mysteries will be solved by the end.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In writing terminology, Annie Proulx is using the techniques of foreshadowing and a take on the good ole red-herring. By giving us extra descriptive information she is lulling us into enjoyment of the language. I have to read her stories at least twice before I understand what’s going on — she tricks me into enjoying the descriptions, and then I’m surprised. I have to go back and check why. This mirrors the experience of the narrator, who has come into the community, probably attracted to the landscape, and only afterwards thinks, oh hang on, something’s not right here and why did I not pick it up?

In order to get away with this you really do have to be a master of the descriptive passage. I feel this is Proulx’s greatest strength.

But scholars have pointed out that Proulx’s exact method of foreshadowing takes a specific form. They call it…

DELAYED DECODING

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt. I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Whose truth is true here, in the world of this story?
  • How do I want it to end?
  • But how would it realistically end?

Annie Proulx has been called a ‘fatalistic’ writer. She gives us the impression that once a setting is set in place and peopled with characters, their lives are set in motion and there’s no changing their path. I believe this particular technique is what gives us that sense of fatalism, or at least contributes to it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “STONE CITY”

There are three different main characters in this story:

The viewpoint character, also the unnamed narrator. Most of what we know of the viewpoint character we deduce by the way they notice things — as usual (though first person narration is not usual for Proulx), we have an ambiguously gendered (though masculine sounding) character with enough world-weariness to be middle-aged or older. He likes to go hunting, though is entirely self-taught. His aim is to get a local to show him. In this regard, this could be the character of Earl in “The Unclouded Day“. (But these stories are not obviously interlinked, so I’m not arguing that, exactly.)

Banger, a local personality who tells the story of yet another character, Old Man Stone.

Banger was about fifty, a heavy man, all suet and mouth. At first I thought he was that stock character who remembered everybody’s first name, shouting “Har ya! How the hell ya doing’?” to people he’d seen only an hour before, giving them a slap on the back or a punch on the arm—swaggering gestures in school, but obnoxious in a middle-aged man. I saw him downtown, talking to anybody who would listen, while he left his hardware store to the attentions of a slouchy kid who could never find anything on the jumbled shelves.

We, along with the narrator, soon learn that Banger has a significant ghost — “His place burned down and the wife and kid was fired right up in it. He got nothing left but his dog and the goddamn hardware store his old man left him and which he was never suited to.”

Old Man Stone, the main character of the hypodiegetic level.

Next question: Who undergoes the character arc? Who get the anagnorisis? That’s who I focus on here.

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is new to the area, dependent on local knowledge and equipment (such as a dog) to help him hunt.

DESIRE

To hunt — that’s the conscious desire. Underneath — as judged by the reader given the information — he sees through pretensions of rural toughness but at the same time he is susceptible to the same himself. He wants to be part of this world. Ideally he wants a hunting companion to feel more at home in this world, but he has trouble finding a companion when he makes an out-of-sorts comment about the local hunting expert with the sorry backstory.

OPPONENT

When Banger takes the narrator to his house to eat birds it’s not clear whether Banger is an ally or an opponent.

PLAN

Narrator tries to find a companion, can’t. Goes hunting by himself. Once shot, he can’t find his bird, which puts him off that part of the woods. So he finds a new hunting area, which happens to be where the local hunting expert also hunts.

BIG STRUGGLE

There is a big struggle scene in the story-within-a-story, in which Banger describes the memory provoked by finding the knife. The state police turn up for the arrest of Floyd Stone ‘for the murder of whoever he was’. (To Banger and the story, the victim is not important.)

The narrator’s own big struggle is similar to the big struggle scene in another story from the same collection, “In The Pit” — one man goes to another man’s abode and accuses him of something he hasn’t done.

ANAGNORISIS

Even to the bastard descendants the Stones were predators. They could not help it any more than Banger, fluttering in suspicious apprehension, could help being their victims.

There’s a fatalistic outlook to that epiphany. The epiphany itself turns humans into animals — hunted and preyed, and explains why Proulx turned a human character into a fox/chicken (alternately — with a fox face and a feather stuck to her cheek). Humans live like animals out here, where everything is wild and dangerous.

NEW SITUATION

I heard that Banger moved to Florida, to Arizona, to California, all earthly paradises to Chopping County.

In the spring I sold my house to a retired couple…

There’s nothing in Chopping County for Banger now, and the narrator, having immersed himself in Banger’s narrative, feels the same.

But the story closes as it opens, with the fox. The fox has taken up residence inside Banger’s abandoned sugarhouse with the distinctive blue door. This underscores the Anagnorisis of the narrator (that humans are animals).

Heart Songs by Annie Proulx Storytelling

heart songs

“Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx utilises a dynamic employed by a number of other stories in the same-named Heart Songs collection — an outsider comes into a rural community and misunderstands local ways. In this case he idealises what he dismissively calls ‘redneck’ culture. Sometimes in this variety of Proulx story, the consequences are darkly humorous — at other times they’re life-threatening. This is one of the darker examples.

“Heart Songs” makes a good mentor text:

  • As an example of a main character who learns nothing about himself, but who has a fairly good grip on his shortcomings and is now learning to live with them rather than change. Proulx includes a proxy anagnorisis which is the character feeling sorry for himself.
  • For the wonderfully apt imagery. Snipe is described as fire, both in looks and in the way he blows from place to place wreaking havoc. Nell is compared to the blackberry.
  • For a description of a place which starts at the town level, follows a character up the road, viewing the house through the window, then takes us right into the house, down to the macro details.
  • For an example of putting the reader on the wrong track, without telegraphing the fact. ‘Ruby would be her brother, with the same broad face and heavy body.’



WHAT HAPPENS IN “HEART SONGS”

Snipe has come to Vermont with vaguely conceived [WEAKNESS] get-rich-quick schemes [DESIRE] and his girlfriend, Catherine, whose wealthy parents stand ready to help in the event of financial crisis. When Snipe begins playing music with the Twilight family in their rundown house on their mountaintop farm, he envisions record deals and easy money [WEAKNESS]. Eno Twilight, the head of the family [OPPONENT], insists, however, that the family does not perform in public, only at home in their dingy kitchen. They play their old-style country songs, arranged by Eno and fat but beautiful Nell, to “make a joyful noise until the Lord”.

Snipe, who has “a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth”, fails to understand the personal significance the Twilights’ songs have for them and sees the family as a means to indulge his taste for the “down and dirty”: “He wanted fat Nell and the freedom of dirty sheets, wanted to sit in a broken chair and play music and not have to make a mark in the world.” [PLAN] Thinking Nell is Eno’s daughter, he seduces her. Then, when Eno appears and is clearly aware of what has happened, Snipe blurts out that he loves Eno’s “daughter” and is told that she is his wife. Snipe flees the house with Eno in pursuit. [BIG STRUGGLE] At the end of the story Snipe is convincing Catherine that they should seek their fortune elsewhere, seemingly oblivious [NO ANAGNORISIS] to the emotional damage he has inflicted on the Twilights. Like the sniper his name suggests, Snipe strikes his victims and moves on [NEW SITUATION]. As in Proulx’s later fiction, the wealthy can easily escape situations that have become uncomfortable for them while the poor are left behind to eke out a living as best they can [MORAL THEME].

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HEART SONGS”

SHORTCOMING

Snipe is an opportunist — sexually and financially. He is with his younger partner mainly for the money her parents bestow upon her (them) and is a philanderer. Unlike many characters who learn nothing, Proulx tells us that Snipe is well aware of this tendency in himself:

He recognised in himself a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth, and Chopping County seemed as good a place as any to find it.

I believe that’s the difference between writing late middle-aged characters (rare) versus writing young characters (common). Old characters, like old people, have learned to live with themselves somehow. Their particular desires are different, and they’re likely to be aware of their shortcomings. They don’t necessarily have the ability to change, or to rise above them.

DESIRE

Perhaps most interesting of all, Proulx takes the character of Snipe out of cliche territory by patinating on top of his shortcomings a wish to align himself with people who are the inverse of himself — people who could make a living from their music — they are that good — but who do it for the simple pleasure of pleasing themselves and God. I believe this is subconscious for Snipe. He thinks he’s attracted to the Twilights because of their good music and the sexual opportunity, but it seems to me he’s hoping to find a counterbalance to his own shortcomings.

Proulx tells us:

He wanted to hook his heel on the chrome rung of a barstool, hear the rough talk, and leave with the stragglers in the morning’s small hours.

That would be the surface level desire. The more important desire is somewhat deeper. The writer needs to understand both when creating a main character.

He ‘wants’ a job, but doesn’t really. He wants to have fun. But then when he finds the Twilights are excellent musicians with no plans to play gigs, he wants to cash in on it by making an album and turning them into a brand. At the same time, he recognises that’s not what he wants at all:

It’s more important I’m doing something I really like you know that.” He couldn’t say to [Catherine] that what he liked was the failing kitchen chair, the wrecked pickup in the weeds.

OPPONENT

Who stands in the way of Snipe fulling his wish to do something for the pure fun of it?

His in-laws seem to be opponents, but they’re ineffective in their wish to stop him. By financially rewarding his wife, they’re by default rewarding him. This type of ‘opposition’ adds layers of interest to your regular outright-foe dynamic in a more typical story.

Snipe’s main opponent is himself — that’s almost a given when it comes to Proulx’s pathetic characters — but for the sake of the story, the Opponent is Eno.

PLAN

In a realistic story (rather than a superhero one), the main character is often an opportunist. Annie Proulx’s characters are also, by and large, opportunists. They might (1) passive-aggressively resist something thrust upon them, or (2) go along with something until they can worm their way out, or (3) go with the flow until an attractive opportunity presents itself. Snipe is the third kind of character. He notices then nurtures a sexual interest—attracted by the subversiveness of the attraction, and the revenge of it (on Catherine) rather than to Nell herself—then when he sees a chance to act upon it, he does. (He sees Nell as food, something to be consumed — she smelled of ‘sweet crushed blackberries’. Blackberries is a great metaphor for Nell because blackberries grow wild, are delicious, but are also an invasive weed. Things from real life which have that juxtaposition, that duplicity, make for excellent literary imagery.

Because Proulx does such a good job of portraying a main character with conflicting desires, he makes no actual Plan to market the Twilights.

He changes his vague plan and tries to write a song himself. The reader knows that this because he thinks he’s caught some of the country magic. But it’s clear that he has no composing talent of his own.

BIG STRUGGLE

The redneck men run Snipe off the property in a life vs death send off. The reveal, to us and to Snipe, is that the Nell is Eno’s wife, not his daughter. (She could be both, but this is left to speculation.)

ANAGNORISIS

Snipe learns nothing. He learns not to go back to this particular place, sure. But he learns nothing that he can apply in a wider context. He learns nothing about himself, or about people.

But Annie Proulx knows story, and she knows to include some kind of anagnorisis proxy in order for a story to feel finished:

Snipe had feelings of melancholy, noticed leaf veins, flakes of mic in rocks, extraordinarily fine hairs on plant stems. The smell of woodsmoke and damp earth made his eyes flood with reasonless tears. Late one afternoon he stood on the dock drinking scotch from the Mexican glass Catherine had brought back from the Acapulco vacation. He stared at a peculiar lenticular cloud. He could hear the sullen hum of a truck on the road beyond the lake. The truck’s buzz, and a tinny, faraway chain saw, made Snipe feel in a rush of misery that he had hardly had an hour’s true happiness.

Note that this is not the Anagnorisis phase of story — it happens before the Battle rather than afterwards. This is the faux ‘revelation’ which leads Snipe into the Battle rather than something that pulls him out of it. This is a great technique for a character like Snipe, who keeps getting himself into strife, learning nothing. Because isn’t this how it works in real life?

Instead, Proulx uses the following technique, jumping the timeline:

Later, Snipe thought that he should have gotten away then, should have slipped out the door, rolled the car silently down the track, and raced for the protection of the cedars.

The other thing a story needs, in place of a bona fide Anagnorisis, is a reveal related to plot. The reveal is, of course, that he just slept with another man’s wife thinking it was his sister.

NEW SITUATION

Snipe persuades Catherine to accompany him elsewhere, on a different kind of get rich quick scheme, where he’ll no doubt make exactly the same kind of mistakes as he always has and always will.