The term “cultural appropriation” or, more accurately “misappropriation”, is a phrase that’s been in use at least since the 1970s, but has only recently started to enter popular lexicon. In the 1990s there was a backlash against politically correct culture. Modern-day moaning about people concerned about cultural misappropriation reminds me very much of that era.
“Electric Arrows”, a short story by Annie Proulx, was published in the late 1990s. Proulx was ahead of the vanguard, keenly aware of cultural misappropriation when most folk were offering their takes on political correctness.
“Electric Arrows” is one of the few Annie Proulx has written in first person. Her narrator, Mason Clew, is learned and thoughtful enough to tell a story well enough, though she does mimic the back-and-forth, circuitous nature of an amateur storyteller. And just as well she does, repeating names and introductions, because this is one of her more ‘elliptical’ stories (a word often used to describe Proulx’s work), and readers certainly benefit from a second pass through.
“ELECTRIC ARROWS” AS MENTOR TEXT FOR WRITERS
The story opens with a photograph, which is used to juxtapose against a house as it used to be versus how it is now.
Ekphrasis is a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. Adjective: Ekphrastic
Looking into a mirror and describing yourself is ekphrastic.
Describing a photograph is ekphrastic.
There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs. You know the style: “My mother is squinting in the fierce sunlight and holding, for some reason, a dead pheasant. She is dressed in old-fashioned lace-up boots, and white gloves. She looks absolutely miserable. My father, however, is in his element, irrepressible as ever, and has on his head that gre]ay velvet trilby from Prague I remember so well from my childhood” The unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.
How Fiction Works, James Wood
A Brief History of Ekphrasis
Ekphrasis was an old Greek pastime, actually, and formed a genre in its own right.
The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present. In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.
Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition.
Modern readers have no time for it. It slows the action down. But in “Electric Arrows”, Annie Proulx keeps it brief, it has a purpose within the wider story and it works because she weaves in a lot of detail around the viewing of the photograph. The photograph functions as a kind of literary mirror, and the word ekphrasis is useful because it describes photographs and mirrors by their shared function:
At bedrock level, Proulx’s stories are simply a mirror held up to a decaying rural world in which ancient farming families sell up and the apples rot on the orchard floor. The newcomers are city greenhorns, naive huntsmen avid for grouse, retired media kings in search of mountain views, high-minded colonists keen to snap up family photo albums and reproduce their contents in the National Geographic.
I won’t get into the usefulness of cameras in storytelling because I’ve written an entire post about that here.
Some people make use of the term ‘subplot’, but I’m in the camp which avoids that word, because in any story, two plot threads must each be a full story in its own right.
I actually don’t even like talking about subplots. Whenever someone asks me “how do I write subplots?”, it makes me incredibly squirmy. I don’t have a good simple answer, for the simple reason that subplots are not a good way to think about story.
In fact, I recommend you stop thinking about subplots altogether. Instead, just think about plot.
- The trick is to introduce the second plot early in the story. It begins here with ‘You can see how nothing has changed in the barn. A knotted length of baling twine, furry with dust, still stretches from the top of the ladder to a beam. The kite’s wooden skeleton, a fragile cross, is still up there.
- Another trick is to give the ‘side story’ the seven basic story elements and no more. Especially in a short story, there’s no more time.
- Finally, the side story must be somehow linked to the main plot — probably thematically.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE SIDE PLOT
Mason and Bootie are children and their father is hopeless.
They want their father’s friend Diamond to stop sexually abusing them.
Diamond, but also their father, who tells them Diamond ‘doesn’t mean nothing by it’ when they complain to him.
They tell their father, who does nothing. Worse, he tells them they should feel sorry for farmers, who are ‘up against it’.
After that, nothing can be done. ‘You get used to it’. But Bootie would hide in the closet whenever she heard Diamond’s truck.
The big struggle scene takes place off-stage, but the detail of the tobacco juice running out is a resonant detail and pretty much all we need of the moment of execution.
In middle age, Mason knows that he and his sister played out the grisly scene with molasses as a way of coming to terms with everything that had happened regarding Diamond.
How does the side story relate to the main story? I believe this is the key linking sentence:
There was something in my father that had to blow up whatever he did.
Diamond ‘blew up’ in a more literal sense when he got electrocuted.
The main story and side story also share symbolism, specifically the dark red trickle. First it comes out of the pie. In modern language we’d say Mason is triggered by anything bloody and oozing because of the way tobacco juice dribbled out of Diamond’s mouth after he was electrocuted.
CHARACTERS IN “ELECTRIC ARROWS”
THE CLEW FAMILY
The Clews used to be a big farming family with a hired man. Now, though they remain on the land, they are poor farmer descendants. This is our viewpoint family. The narrator is a Clew.
The pie they eat in the kitchen while looking at the photographs is cut into pieces so they can eat it. This is clearly symbolic after Aunt says, “Properties break apart.”
Reba — Mason’s wife. Reba and Mason are in middle-age. I had a bit of trouble working out Reba’s relationship to Mason — I thought she may have been his sister or cousin.
Aunt — Aunt is elderly. “Electric Arrows”opens with Aunt showing her niece pictures of the niece’s father. We know she’s poor because of the detail that she wears clothes two days in a row to save on detergent.
Mason — Narrator, and brother of Reba, sickly and weak, operates a small appliance repair business from the barn. Mason is the personification of the apple trees which grew crooked (or the other way round, I guess). The Baldwins, which are apple trees, are written about by Proulx as if the plantation of trees themselves are an old family on the land. For instance, ‘None of the Baldwins made it through a hard winter just before the war.’ What this means is that the Clews didn’t make it through a hard winter just before the war, because they had to compromise their livelihood and way of life by selling off parcels of land. The Clew farmhouse is described as having ‘crooked doorframes’. ‘Crooked’ is a word associated with apple trees.
Father — Off stage but an important part of the backstory of Chapter Two, because the father’s actions have lead his children to where they are today. He could have been more flexible and grown different apples or, as the middle-aged narrator can see, he could have made use of other skills such as stone fence building, but he was too capricious.
Father’s brother — Died young. Aunt says this one ‘had all the sense’. In storytelling terms, the dead father’s brother serves as an alternative for what could have been. Though he died as a child and could have turned into anything, we infer that Mason wonders what if the sensible brother had been the one to run the farm? Would our fortunes be completely different now? Humans are susceptible to this line of what-if thinking. The hypothetical parallel life story has been the main concept in various other stories, and in this one it’s presented as a small part.
Bootie — Mason’s sister.
Diamond Ward — Father’s friend and child abuser. Ironically, though he breaks people by abusing them, he can fix equipment. But the way Mason describes this ties back to his ability to fix and break at the same time: He ‘could fix whatever was broken again and again until nothing was left of the original machine but its function’. Proulx has a particular gift for finding the good and bad side of a single attribute. She did it also with the colour yellow in “Bedrock” and with blackberries in “Heart Songs“. Even electricity itself is presented as both good and bad for rural folk. ‘It was as if my father had personally given them this wonder. Yet you could tell they despised him, too, for making things easy’.
THE MOON AZURES
Mrs. Moon-Azure — introduced by her legs first as she gets out of the car. This is a very common cinematic trick — if you see a woman’s legs first and she’s getting out of a car, you can bet she’s not a sympathetic character. She’s either an opponent or a sex object. This particular woman’s legs are compared to celery stalks.
Moon-Azure — takes Mason for granted. Asks for a bit of help with a fallen tree, though Mason is savvy and experienced to know it’s half a day’s work, more like. ‘Nobody knows what kind of doctor he is.’ He is proud of building a stone fence, but it buckles with the first frost. His horse runs free and is killed on the highway, like a scene out of “A Country Killing” by the same author. Apparently, accidentally killing horses by failing to keep them in their trailers properly is one common way newcomers and drunks manage to wreak havoc in rural areas.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “ELECTRIC ARROWS”
[MAIN STORY][I]ncluding humor at the expense of outsiders, “Electric Arrows” returns the focus of the book to the people whose land is being taken over. A large portion of the Clew family farm, including the original homestead, is now owned by the Moon-Azures, whose name, “blue moons,” suggests their oddity in the New England landscape. A wealthy couple from Maryland, the Moon-Azures “trace Clew genealogy as though they bought our ancestors with the land”. Convinced that she and her husband are better able to preserve local history than those whose ancestors made it [OPPONENT], Mrs. Moon-Azure even tries to buy a treasured collection of old family photographs from the narrator and the other remaining Clews [OPPONENT PLAN], who live in what used to be the hired man’s house and retain ownership of the barn [WEAKNESS]. One day [INCITING INCIDENT] the Clews are surprised [OFFSTAGE BIG STRUGGLE] to see in a newspaper a photograph of the picture their father etched in a granite outcropping on the farm during the narrator’s childhood — a primitive self-portrait of his father wearing his electric-lineman’s gear and holding fanciful bolts of electricity in one hand. According to the caption in the newspaper, however, the Moon-Azures have found a “[c]omplex” petroglyph of a thunder god, “rare among the eastern woodland tribes”, a humorous instance of outsiders misinterpreting things to fit their own romanticized versions of history.
The decline of the Clew family and their neighbors, however, is not the result of the arrival of well-to-do outsiders [PROXY OPPONENT], which is a symptom rather than a cause of the national trends that have resulted in the collapse of the local economy [OPPONENT]. Unable to compete with or understand trends in the market for farm products outside rural Vermont, the narrator’s father failed as an apple farmer and went to work for the rural electric cooperative. As a farmer, he grew the varieties of apples he liked, concentrating on Baldwins when “big growers were pushing the MacIntosh and Delicious,” creating a consumer demand for shiny red apples rather than the “cloudy maroon” Baldwins [FALL OF MAN SYMBOLISM].
The narrator, who was always “nervy and sick,” operates a small-scale electric-appliance business that his father started in the barn, where the remains of an old kite still hang on a beam. He and his sister still bear the emotional scars of childhood traumas. Their father’s friend and fellow lineman, Diamond Ward [OPPONENT], who used to slide “his old dirty paws” between the children’s legs, was electrocuted while trying to retrieve a kite from an electric line, and for the rest of their childhood the children reenacted his death with that kite, taking turns playing Diamond in a mixture of vengeance and guilt.
Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ELECTRIC ARROWS”
The narrator describes himself as ‘nervy and sick’ — in other words, he’s no match for his environment and the rural life he’s been born into.
His desire is in the shape of regret — what if his father had been different? He wants a better past for himself and for his sister.
The well-to-do outsiders are the personification of how the landscape has changed. As Karen Lane Rood says, the decline of the Clew family and their neighbours is not the result of the arrival of well-to-do outsiders — they are the symptom. Fate itself — or plum bad luck — has been the Clews’ downfall. That’s why I call the Moon-Azures a proxy opponent — they are human stand-ins for how the setting has changed politically — mostly economically.
Pederast Diamond Ward is the opponent of the side story/subplot, as mentioned above. This is the man who cause narrator and Reba damage. He may or may not be in a sexual relationship with their father.
Time is turned into a character, and also into an opponent:
Time has scraped away the picket fences, and you should hear the snowplow throw its dirty spoutings against the clapboards; it sounds like the plow is coming through the kitchen. The leftoer Pugleys, Clews and the Cuckhorns live in these worn-out houses.
But rather than ‘time’, it’s more like luck that’s done the Clews a bad turn. Proulx explores the concept of luck/fate more fully in “A Run Of Bad Luck” (an earlier story in the same collection). But here the Clews were victims of circumstance — the apple they worked to cultivate was unpopular and unwanted when they were trying to sell those apples, but it has since come back into fashion. They no longer have any to sell.
The plan comes from the opponents, the Moon-Azures, who want to appropriate the heritage of the Clews.
The Clews are passively resisting this, basically powerless, but refusing to hand over the photographs, at least.
Annie Proulx sets up the Battle as a mystery — the Moon-Azures have found something, but what? There is no onstage Battle — but we are given enough to imagine the gatherers and the press around this rock sketch which they mistake for an Indian artifact.
Although he is a damaged man, mentally and physically, by the end of this story Mason Clew has learnt to laugh. He finally gets a chance to turn his father into a grotesque, almost fictional character. He does this by looking at the crude sketch as if that’s a realistic portrayal of the man.
The story is cut off abruptly after the Anagnorisis phase. On the other hand, the final sentence may be enough to suggest how things will be from now on:
And how can Yogetsky understand?
Yogetsky exists in the story mostly to flesh out the cast, but he is in many ways very similar to Mason, yet he will never understand. (If Yogetsky can’t, who can?) The new state of affairs: Mason has come to terms with his history just a little more, but he’s still basically alone in his trauma.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
“The Unclouded Day” is similar in its message to “Electric Arrows”:
Many of the stories turn on these oppositions [between farmers and newcomers], mostly to ironic effect. In “Electric Arrows” the dispossessed remnant of a farming clan look on sourly as a pair of interlopers go blundering through the snares and pitfalls of rural life and eventually turn up what they imagine to be an Indian stone carving. Reading the newspaper, one of the farmers realises that the “complex petroglyph” was executed by his own father half a century before. In “The Unclouded Day” a yuppie’s inept pot-shot at a grouse coincides with the onset of thunder – he happily assumes that the three birds killed by a simultaneous lightning bolt are a reward for weeks of fruitless practice.
“Electric Arrows” also reminds me of The Bone People by Keri Hulme.
Alice Munro’s “Runaway” is also similar in many ways, with a rich academic type living right next door to a couple in a trailer. Their lives intersect, with the rich character thinking they’re doing the poor one a good turn, but failing, because in the end so much has contributed to where they each are today.
So What To Do With Old Photos?
Knowingly pasting a photograph of yourself with an old boyfriend into an album you will leave to your husband and children just doesn’t feel right. And that one of you smoking in your youth? Let’s just pop that one in the bin. And get rid of any that make me look fat, cross, badly dressed or tipsy. Is this the kind of editing to do? Try to erase anything that doesn’t suit who I’d like to be today? Even though all that came before has created who I am now?
Sarah Watt, Worse Things Happen At Sea
I tell you what you should do with your fictional brainstorming, though. If you get any notice of your impending demise, might pay to sort that stuff out before someone finds your ‘box of crazy’ and uploads to Imgur.