“What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” by Annie Proulx is the story of Gilbert Wolfscale, whose rabid devotion to his ranch drives off his wife and sons.
‘The Contest” by Annie Proulx is a short story from the Bad Dirt collection, published 2004.
Like Larry McMurtry, Proulx writes two main types of stories — comical stories similar to those found in dime novels (in McMurtry’s case) and in hunting and fishing magazines (in Proulx’s case).
“The Contest” belongs to the comical class, and makes a great case study in satirical anticlimax. When writing an anticlimactic story we have to be careful not to make the reader feel like we have wasted their time. This one works, and it’s worth taking a close look at the story structure. Proulx has done something interesting with it.
STORYWORLD OF “THE CONTEST”
This is a humorous tale, and a satire of smalltown Wyoming rural life, where parish pump politics rule, and where the usual human pecking order works by unusual rules.
Utilised across about half of the short stories in her Bad Dirt collection, Annie Proulx created the small town of Elk Tooth.
The population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy’s Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that’s roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story (“The Contest”) sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there’s nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.
There’s a definite magic realist twist near the end of “The Contest”, but otherwise this feels like a slight exaggeration on what could be a real place. The exaggeration, of course, would come from a narrator skilled in the art of the tall tale.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CONTEST”
Presumably because they have nothing else to do, the men of Elk’s Tooth start a beard contest. It’s meant to be a bit of fun but becomes mean spirited, as it seems to symbolise, to the men, their entire identities.
Before the contest is over, a newcomer arrives. The guy’s beard is luxurious to a comical degree. The men tacitly agree that the contest is over. They’ll find some new way to sort out the pecking order, and turn immediately to modes of transportation.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”
The structure is very interesting. I’d like to compare it to a children’s picture book. Children’s stories in particular are known to start with the iterative (a description of what happens all the time) and then switch to the singulative (But on this particular day…).
Proulx makes use of this switch, but in a children’s story the iterative introduction tends to be brief. After all, we don’t care much for what happens every boring old day. We want to know what happens on this particular day. Something unusual, you can bet.
But in “The Contest”, Proulx spends ten pages setting up with the iterative — sort of — and then the last three pages in the singular.
Here’s where it switches over:
On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar.
It’s not quite as simple as that, because you could argue the beard contest is in itself a singular event. Structurally, though, the beard contest is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. So I’m treating this ‘one off’ contest as Annie Proulx’s way of telling us all the backstory of this town — how it works, who lives there, how the streets are laid out.
Unless we know this town, the singular portion of the story doesn’t make sense. Even so, this is a story with a classic, anti-climactic ending.
The anti-climactic ending, when used in the extreme, is known as a shaggy dog tale, which I consider a subcategory of the tall tale — a regional, masculine tradition, in line with the narrative voice.
Like many of Proulx’s stories, “The Contest” stars a community rather than an individual. The characters together make up a vision of one eccentric rural figure. Their weakness is their extreme isolation, and the insular thinking that inevitably results.
Proulx presents a society that is struggling and persisting at best – which is not especially likeable, but for which we still feel tremendous sympathy as it strains to comprehend the meretriciousness of modernity. She creates characters who, despite their tenacity and will, are somehow flattened against the landscape, beaten down, and whose tragedy is more everyman and woman than individual.
This is specifically about the men of the community, who are so similar to each other, really, that they can only distinguish themselves by superficial means e.g. by the colour, length and texture of their beards. I’m reminded of the ridiculous happenings that Amish communities have become known for. When everyone is forced to live in exactly the same way, humans still have a way of pulling themselves up the pecking order, even if it means inventing an entirely new pecking order. When you’re only allowed to drive a horse and wagon, you can still trick out your wagon.
The men want to be respected by each other. Since beards are a symbol of manhood, I guess they each want their manhood respected. (This requires being sized up by a woman — the bartender.)
In a pissing contest like this, everyone entered automatically becomes everyone else’s opponent. But the stakes are very low. The prize money is insubstantial.
But the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. Ralph Kaups is the embodiment of everything sophisticated and foreign. By the end, two of the men, Creel Zmundzinski and Plato Bucklew have banded together. The real opposition is between country bumpkins and a sophisticated blow-in.
There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. Just hang around waiting for it to grow. And how does one turn that into a fully-fleshed story?
Proulx knows that the beard contest is just the wrapper for something far more meaty — a detailed description of a town and its people, each with their own mini backstory.
A lot of language humour derives from Proulx’s comically detailed descriptions, in sentences with multiple descriptive clauses.
But a profusion of detail does not make a story. It still needs some kind of shape. For that, Proulx introduces a mystery — equally trifling — how did Bill de Silhouette catalogue his books before he up and died? This is important because they need to put their hands on a book about beards in order to settle bar disputes between them.
The bar scene is very much like something out of a classic Western, with the shady newcomer barging in through the double swing doors. There are no guns here, but a clear winner nevertheless, symbolised not by the hue of the hat but by luxuriousness of beard.
The mystery of de Silhouette’s library cataloguing is solved when Bill’s widow happens upon a notebook with the key written down — a fitting anticlimactic solution within an anticlimactic tale.
“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover. “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didnt’ tell me about it before he went.”
Part of the humour revolves around the observation (revelation) that it takes outside intrusion to band a community together. Otherwise they’ll just keep fighting each other.
We can extrapolate that the beard contest is over, because no one will want to give prize money to this up-himself blow in.
Now they’ll engage in arguments about who has the best motorcycle/car/horse/wagon. The hierarchy will be based not on who has the flashest equipment, but on whose is the most eccentric, according to their own smalltown logic, which itself is a nebulous thing.
Bigger than that, a newcomer will psychologically band these rural men together, at least for a time, and the ‘cruel competitiveness’ will simmer down.
TAKEAWAY WRITING TIPS
- If writing a story in which nothing happens (e.g. growing a beard) it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery.
- If the plot ends in anticlimax (e.g. a competition is set up but no one really wins it), then the mystery can be anticlimactic, too.
- Opposition comes in two main forms — opposition between members of the same group (what sociologists call ingroup) and opposition from the outgroup. Stories tend to progress in two main ways: an outgroup opponent appears early and the ingroup members band together to fight them. Or, as in this story, an inversion on the usual, the bulk of the story revolves around ingroup bickering, and the outgroup opponent only arrives to finish things off.
The Christmas Chronicles is this year’s tentpole festive family movie from Netflix. Directed by Clay Kaytis, the script is written by another two men, David Guggenheim and Matt Lieberman.
The nice thing about The Christmas Chronicles is that a few of the old gender tropes have been inverted. Instead of an adventurous younger brother juxtaposed against a surly teenaged older sister, we have an adventurous younger sister juxtaposed against a surly teenaged brother. Instead of killing off the mother, they’ve killed off the father to allow the kids to go out on their own Christmas Eve jaunt completely unsupervised.
But as I have said before, inversion doesn’t equal subversion. Continue reading “Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles”
“Reunion” is a short story by John Cheever, first published 1962 in The New Yorker. You can listen to it read by Richard Ford.
STORYWORLD OF REUNION
As Richard Ford says, Grand Central Station is a place where anything could happen — any two people could meet.
The story is set in the 1950s or 60s, the heyday of ‘the perfect nuclear family’. It was a big deal back then not to have a father. Divorce was rare. Women were not financially supported. It is highly probable the boy was the only child in his class without a father at home. This would add to the pain of missing him.
COMPACT STORY FORM
“Reunion” is a compact short story of around 1000 words. Most of Cheever’s stories are much longer than this one. The reader deduces a lot:
- The father has probably been kicked out of ‘the club’ and couldn’t take his son there even if he wanted to.
- His terrible personality is the reason the narrator’s mother divorced him in the first place.
- The father is showing off to the son, probably more than he usually does, because of the limited time he has with his boy.
- He has a white collar job, and no doubt treats his co-workers and secretary in the same way. I’m imagining he works on Madison Avenue, in the Madmen world.
- I imagine the father has some kind of personality disorder which gives him the ability to turn off empathy at will.
Cheever partly achieves compactness by:
- Telling rather than always showing. The first paragraph is an excellent example of that.
- Omitting the narrator’s reactions, focusing only on the father’s mesmerising horribleness. We only get the narrator’s reaction in the final sentence when it becomes clear he has decided not to see his father again (perhaps only later, after processing events).
The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats was first published 1978, which makes it 40 years old. The Snowy Day is the most famous of Keats’ publications, but The Trip was also successful, and subsequently adapted into a play. Although I have not seen the play, I can imagine how a set designer was enchanted by the peep show box element of this picture book. There are instructions in the back for how to make one.
As a Jewish American and son of immigrants, Keats was hugely influential in American children’s literature for including people of colour in his work.
Keats was influential for another, related reason: His love of the urban landscape. Picture books such as A Lion In The Meadow were far more popular in the 1960s and 70s. Pastoral arenas make for a pleasant childhood utopia, after all. It’s almost as if children’s storytellers couldn’t imagine a child being happy in the city. Yet many children do live in the city, and almost as many wouldn’t have it any other way.
For much more on the symbolism of city versus country, see this post.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TRIP
Like many fictional children, Louie has just moved to a new neighbourhood. This story is so popular because:
- Every reader can identify with a character facing some big change. We’ve all had change in our lives. And if not, we all fear change somewhat.
- In storytelling terms, this is the perfect plot because the child reader is now exploring Louie’s new world alongside Louie. This creates immediate character empathy.
- It also provides the author/illustrator with a reason for explaining this new setting. Everything is new to the child, and everything is noteworthy.
Louie’s weakness is that he is new, anxious and doesn’t know anybody in his new neighbourhood.
Surface desire: Louie wants to have a bit of fun making a peep show box, because he doesn’t feel sufficiently confident to go outside.
Deeper desire: Louie wants to connect with people.
In a story like this, in which the child is too scared to really do anything or go anywhere, what does a writer do about the opposition?
Well, it very often comes from the child’s imagination. That’s the very thing keeping them from moving in the first place.
The opponents are the scary creatures Louie makes inside his peep show box.
To amuse himself with a peep show box. Though I doubt Louie meant to do this consciously, what he’s doing — in effect — is creating miniature versions of his old friends then disguising them as monsters so that the costume can subsequently come off, revealing scary things to be benign after all.
He flies back to his old neighbourhood in his imagination, as a way to transition himself from his old place to this new place a bit more slowly than has been forced upon him. I was thinking about the symbolism of flight, and how Keats was using that. But I don’t believe flight is the significant symbol here — it’s photography. I wrote about photography in young adult literature here, but the peep show box serves in this picture book in the same way.
Also, part of me thinks this story is about how kids are basically the same wherever you go — the trick or treaters of this new neighbourhood might as well be the same friends he has back home. This is an interesting concept, and it’s probably my own interpretation rather than Keats’ intent, but I do think kids of this age are adaptable. If they’re good at making friends in one environment, they’ll most likely find the same kind of comrades if they’re transplanted.
Louie meets the monsters head on. They chase him down a street. At first he seems to be trapped, but…
… then he recognises his friends who are dressed up.
The revelation for the reader is that it is Halloween. The revelation for Louie is that things may look scary on the outside are not at all scary when you really look at them closely (or get to know them).
Ergo: He realises that if he gets to know the kids in his new neighbourhood, they won’t be scary to him.
Louie goes outside to join the new neighbourhood kids, and we extrapolate that he will make friends with them.
Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an unpleasant emotion which should be more widely known. Not many people know how it feels, and even fewer know what it’s called. But Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones is an excellent fictional example of a character who lives with these hard emotions.
Today I’ll take a close look at Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, the first in the Junie B series, first published 1992.
Junie B. Jones books are infamous for being some of the most highly challenged and banned in libraries across America because: Continue reading “Junie B. Jones and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria”
“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.
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. Continue reading “Electric Arrows by Annie Proulx”
“A Run of Bad Luck” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published in 1987, collected in Heart Songs, 1999.
- I find this story interesting for its themes around the problematic concept of luck, and the role of decision-making in making one’s own ‘luck’.
- The opening paragraphs describing the mother in the kitchen is an excellent example of how kitchen work provides opportunities for highly symbolic body language beats. ‘She sawed the loaf of bread into thick slices and stacked them on a plate, set out a pound of butter already hacked and scored by knife blades.’
- Proulx treats the house like a stage, introducing first the mother in the kitchen, next the husband enters, followed by the sons all coming in for something to eat. Larry McMurtry did the same in the opening of Lonesome Dove.
- ‘hung up the wool jackets that held the shapes of their shoulders, the bend of their arms’
- When the POV switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene, sticklers for ‘head hopping’ might complain, but this is a good example of a writer gently leading us towards a bigger change in POV. The ‘camera’ focuses on Haylett even before the double line break. (The double line break is for the change in time — next morning — as much as for the change in POV.)
- Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit: ‘Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.’ Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but she’s using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive.
“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: Continue reading “Bedrock by Annie Proulx Storytelling Techniques”