Delayed decoding is a technique used by the Literary Impressionists and writers who came after. The term was coined by Ian Watt in a 1972 lecture Pink Toads and Yellow Curs: An Impressionist Narrative Device in Lord Jim. Joseph Conrad is well-known for using this technique. Lord Jim was published in 1899, but many modern lyrical writers keep it in their toolbox. It is also great for building suspense in the reader. Writers can also use this technique to create a sense of fatalism, a la American writer Annie Proulx.
A Definition of Delayed Decoding
A writer tells a story in such a way that the reader won’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story.
Short story writers make much use of it. This is why short stories need to be read twice.
[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.
Decoding comes from a theoretical framework to do with what cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014) called ‘communication events’. (Hall was Jamaican born British.)
Communication events refer to any kind of communication at all: Articles, news stories, YouTube videos, picture books, you name it.
These communication events do not represent reality. Audiences reinterpret communication events and create new entities.
Of course, this doesn’t mean storytellers are off the hook. Storytellers can’t just say stuff like, “I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple” without interrogating the fact that stories (communication acts) are encoded by their creators for a preferred meaning.
To use Stuart Hall’s terminology: In the representation of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan the writer) encoded the wives in a misogynistic way (probably subconsciously). The wives were then decoded (and okay, possibly renegotiated) by viewers in a misogynistic society as nags.
(For more on the specific example of Breaking Bad, and why Vince Gilligan — accidentally — created an unsympathetic Skyler White, see this post. Tl;dr: By engendering empathy for Walt he threw Skyler to the wolves.)
Back to representation, encoding and decoding: Stuart Hall emphasises that representations themselves don’t have a meaning. Instead, representations enable things to mean. Also, representation is not a distortion of reality, but a reality in its own right.
A useful word to use at this point is ‘polysemic‘ (polysemy): Capable of having several possible meanings. Breaking Bad is polysemic, for sure. Feminist viewers will have a different viewing experience from misogynistic viewers. (We can say that about pretty much everything. Ditto for left-wing and right-wing audiences, adult and child audiences, and so on and so forth.)
So anyway, adding to Ian Watt’s 1972 lecture, that’s why the word ‘decoding’ so often comes up when talking about stories, literature, TV, or, ahem, ‘communication events’.
EXAMPLES IN LITERATURE
EXAMPLE: ANNIE PROULX’S HEART SONGS
American writer Annie Proulx is well-known for making use of delayed decoding. Here is Aliki Varvogli explaining the concept of delayed decoding in a book about Annie Proulx’s writing:
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
Delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ includes the writing technique known by all writers: ‘foreshadowing’. However, ‘foreshadowing’ focuses on a writer’s technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here. It’s usually far more subtle than a Chekhov’s gun.
Delayed decoding describes the experience of reading a story twice and then thinking, Oh, okay, now I know why the author did that. When done well, the symbolism now fits together into a web. We see how the symbols serve the theme. Whereas the Chekhov’s Gun technique is to do with the sequence of events (the plot), audience decoding might be delayed in any aspect as determined by the author: on a symbolic level, plot level (sure), a character level, an imagic level and so on.
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.
EXAMPLE: JOSEPH CONRAD
Well-known examples I’ve seen mentioned:
In Heart of Darkness (1899) Marlow sees ‘sticks’ which he soon views as arrows.
In “Youth” Marlow is blown up.
In “The Idiots” the cliff moves from under Susan Bacadou’s feet.
These are all examples of Joseph Conrad avoiding a narration of events, instead forcing the reader into the narrator’s place. The effect: Readers experience phenomena as the narrator does, and the experience feels simultaneous.
Alice Munro delays our decoding of “Runaway” in relation to the character of Clark.
On my second reading of “Runaway” by Alice Munro it’s now clear that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When I first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true. Looking back on the story, or re-reading it, we know we were being told all along. We weren’t able to decode the full story at first. Our full understanding was delayed.
Here is a reader describing delayed decoding in a review of “Runaway”, by comparing it to the master chessplayer’s technique of making endgame studies:
After some thought, I find a metaphor which sums up my own feelings [about “Runaway”]. It’s true that a Munro story can seem just a little too perfect. Everything fits together so elegantly; there is nothing wasted. A non-chessplayer might compare it to a chess game. But for someone who does play chess, the image doesn’t work. A normal chess game is like a novel. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, where things often go in unexpected directions and painfully have to be put back on track. Novelists can never quite control their characters (Proust somehow ended up putting in a couple more books than he had originally intended), and chessplayers have an even harder time controlling their pieces.
There is a small group of people in the chess world, however, who do something which feels more rewarding to them than playing games; they compose endgame studies. A study is a chess idea expressed in its purest form. Every piece is necessary, and there is only one sequence of moves that achieves the desired result, given best defence. If White’s task is to win, then he has only one way to win, and if it is to draw, then he only has one way to draw. The composer has a key position in mind, which possesses some unusual or beautiful property. At first, the arrangement of the pieces appears pointless; but finally the solver realizes that in just this case a knight is worth more than a queen, or the king finds itself miraculously stalemated in the middle of the board, and they see what the composer is doing.
A Munro story feels to me rather like a study. There is a small group of people and a set of relationships between them. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. But somehow, as the story unfolds, a logical but completely unexpected scene arises. A woman with psychic powers, baking little dough mice in an institution; or a child, with a winter coat over her pyjamas, standing shivering in a snowdrift and helping scatter ashes. You suddenly understand that this is what the story was about.
Very few chessplayers are able to create worthwhile studies. I think Munro’s gift is similar, and just as rare.
In an early scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano, Flora unwittingly gossips about her own mother to the neighbourhood busybody and her adult (but naive) daughter. “That’s a very strong opinion,” says Aunt Morag, a Mrs Lynde archetype, who has the potential to be either an ally or an opponent to Ada. “I know,” replies little Flora, thinking herself one of the grown-ups, “It’s unholy.”
At the time, the audience will be amused by this conversation for its earnest precocity. (Aunt Morag and her daughter are also comedic archetypes — gossiping village wives.) But this scene is a storytelling example of delayed decoding: Only in hindsight do we understand its significance. Despite their very close mother-daughter relationship, this was Campion showing us that Flora was always capable of selling her mother out.
Let’s return to Annie Proulx. Near the end of Proulx’s short story “Negatives“, at the part of the story where characters (or readers) undergo some kind of self-revelation, readers learn 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. 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.
Readers didn’t understand the significance of that sentence until reaching the end of the story, in a beautiful example of delayed decoding.
EXAMPLE: “THE SHAWL”
Sometimes the decoding is so delayed it only happens if the reader continues on to the sequel. “The Shawl” is a Holocaust short story by Cynthia Ozick seems to be about a mother and two daughters. Only after reading the sequel short story “Rosa”, published three years later, do we learn that this is a story of a mother, her baby and fourteen-year-old niece, and that the baby is a result of a rape by a German soldier.
In this case, the writer can’t assume every reader will go on to the sequel, so the story has to stand on its own, and the writer has to be content with the reader decoding the story as it appears in its partial form, while also making it feel complete.
Linguists talk about ‘cataphora’. This is when a speaker talks about something but doesn’t tell us what the hell they’re talking about until later in the sentence or paragraph. It can be very annoying. But it’s also a pretty normal way of talking.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Superman!
(The tagline writers knew what ‘it’ was all along. They were keeping us in suspense.
“Have you seen the thing? You know, the yellow um, wotsit thingo. The butter.”
The annoying kind. This is not a rhetorical device. This is not delayed decoding. But it is a thing.
“Dump Junk” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Bad Dirt collection (2004). This is a revisioned fairytale based on The Magic Porridge Pot and similar.
Proulx’s shorts stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony. Annie Proulx’s short stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony.
Benedicte Meilon, The Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature edited by Stephanie Durrans
SETTING OF “DUMP JUNK”
All of these stories are set in Wyoming. Sometimes Proulx makes use of a realworld town, other times she zooms us in as far as the county but invents a fictional town. This is one of those times: Fremont County, Wyoming is a real place (population 40,000); the town of Firecracker appears to be fictional.
The entire county is the size of Vermont, but Vermont has a lot more people packed into it, with a population of 623,000.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “DUMP JUNK”
A woman dies and her children sort out her junk. Because the son and daughter don’t get on, the men do the garage and the women sort out the house. In the process, we learn two backstories in particular: the backstory of Max Stifle, and that of Christina, the daughter. We also learn by extension a bit about Vivian, with emphasis on how poverty-stricken they were ‘in the beginning’.
Sorting out a houseful of possessions is a sobering task many adult children must do at some point, and it often (inevitably? always?) reveals something new about the dead parent’s life. No surprise, this life stage is oft mined by storytellers. Stories are about surprise, and the revelation of a secret = excellent surprise.
This plot was used by Robert James Waller in Bridges of Madison County (which Stephen King holds up as an example of bad writing, by the by).
But because this is Annie Proulx, there will be more to “Dump Junk” than the same-old, same-old ‘adult child learns her parent had hidden depths and a sexual side after all’ trope. Sure enough this one takes a turn. In a system of primogeniture, the son, Bobcat inherits the house. Christina, being a daughter, inherits the kettle (her mother’s prized possession) and everything in the house. Since the house is full of junk and the kettle leaks, Christina has inherited nothing.
But “Dump Junk” takes a sudden turn in genre when Christina wishes her parents had invested in a microwave, and then a microwave is noticed, still in its box. She wishes the old jalopy would start outside. She wishes for a vodka and orange—it appears in the fridge. Proulx is making use of the Rule of Three, in which three times makes a pattern. That’s when the mystery is solved.
Turns out the leaky kettle has magical qualities and can grant wishes. I’ve heard writing advice to the effect of, “Well, if you’re writing fantasy, don’t spring it on the reader. Make sure the reader knows from the first few pages what to expect from the setting.” Implication being: you won’t find the right readers if readers don’t know what genre they’re getting into.
If Proulx ever heard that advice, I doubt she sat up straight. Alongside another fairytale revisioning set on a farm, “The Bunchgrass End Of The World“, this story, “Dump Junk”, starts out as realism. Fairytale magic is sprung upon us with no warning, especially given the story’s place in the rest of the collection.
“Dump Junk” ends in tragedy, because casual wishes work as well as carefully considered ones.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “DUMP JUNK”
“Dump Junk” is a Wyoming re-casting of the Sweet Porridge category of fairytales, in which a receptacle grants the wish of excess in a time of poverty. (I took a close look at The Magic Porridge Potin this post.) Such tales are classified by Aarne-Thompson as 565.
This category of tale can be seen across time and across cultures. It starts out as a wish fulfilment fantasy but the rule is that it ends with a moral lesson about greed. China gave us stories about a boy with a magic brush, who could paint anything. These are similar. In that case, the boy uses the brush to conquer someone else’s greed. (The Magical Life Of Mr Renny is a picture book riff on that classic tale.)
Annie Proulx isn’t into moral lessons. In contrast, she’s known as a ‘fatalistic’ writer. The term ‘geographical determinism’ is often used. “It is what it is. Doesn’t matter what you do, you’re a product of your time and place.”
At first a fairytale plot seems to fly in the face of fatalism. If some people have access to a genie, doesn’t that mean they’ve taken control of their poverty-stricken fate? On reflection, this sort of fairytale is exactly in line with Proulx’s world view. Across her stories humans behave in predictable ways, shaped by whatever is available to us in our environment. Access to wealth doesn’t necessarily help people rise up. We’re all at the mercy of some power greater than ourselves, though not in the religious sense. Instead, Proulx makes use of vast geography to turn humans into highly fallible miniatures.
I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determines what happens to them… The characters in my novels pick their ways through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.
In “Dump Junk” Proulx makes use of not three but four generations to emphasise the minuscule length of a single human life.
The Stifles are a family with major, long-standing internal problems.
Proulx describes Bobcat and Christina’s relationship in a matter-of-fact way, but any man who strangles women in arguments needs to be taken seriously. Strangulation is the most reliable precursor to subsequent murder. Not only that, strangulation (without loss of life) very often results in lifelong injury to the throat area. This is why some governments have started to take choking seriously. New Zealand instituted a new non-fatal strangulation offence specifically around choking and suffocation, and the offence can now carry seven years’ imprisonment.
Bobcat has probably inherited these attitudes from his father, who spent much of his life in the ‘caring’ profession of teaching, but garnered a reputation for maimed hands among the boys he taught shop to. Bobcat remembers his father for his criticisms. Terrible things happened in his classes while Max Stifle was in the toilet, when he should’ve been supervising his unruly students.
The first thing that strikes me about this family is how unusual it is that Max and Vivian lived so long. Most times, only people with money and education make it to over 100. Sixties and seventies is a more common period in which to die. In hindsight, of course, we can deduce that Max and Vivian made the decision to live til 100 each. It took them a further year or two to actually decide to die.
It helps story conflict that Bobcat and Christina dislike each other a lot. But opposition usually works best if it’s more complicated than simple, long-standing animosity. If there’s no big, outside opposition (e.g. a natural disaster, a supernatural monster), it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery. Then, the mystery functions as opposition.
The mystery here: Why did Vivian Stifle live as long as she did, but suddenly stop doing a lot of the things she used to do? The women can tell exactly when she stopped collecting bags, when she stopped collecting recipes.
Patsy pulled a grocery receipt from one of the sacks on top of the pile. “Actually I think she stopped somewhere along the line. Look at the date – it’s 1954. She must have stopped back then.” She pulled out a sack near the bottom and found a handwritten grocery slip for a hundred pounds each of flour and sugar dated 1924. The amount paid was small as there was a notation that she had brought in six dozen fresh eggs to trade against her purchases.
Out in the shed, their son wonders how Max and Vivian managed to live when they had nothing to live on? He goes through the possibilities. Did they inherit from somewhere? Do they have a secret stash?
Which is the Battle scene? Sometimes it’s not obvious. And I don’t think it’s obvious here, but whatever it is, it’ll be the bit that comes right before the Anagnorisis. Even this isn’t always easy, because in a story like this, who’s the star?
I believe the “Battle” is the low-key scene in which Christina takes the kettle out to her brother. She’s about to tell him what it can do, but he speaks to her harshly and she suddenly changes her mind. Bobcat has unwittingly lost a big struggle that really never got started.
Annie Proulx quite often keeps anagnorises from her characters, who keep on keeping on, stuck in a rut, along their fatal paths. But she does makes sure to offer the reader a revelation, and mine comes after this:
Bobcat had had a prostatectomy three years earlier, and the perineal incision had cut both bundles of nerves. He had not had an erection since the operation and was still wearing diaper pads for the accompanying incontinence. Although he was glad to be alive, his condition made him irritable and short-tempered. The sight of his two grandsons, healthy and big, jumping around and talking about cars and girls and music, punished him severely. At the same time he felt pity for them, wanted to warn them that the hard years were coming and their entanglement of emotional and money problems, vexing questions about the cosmos, the hereafter, the right way of things, and then the slow, wretched betrayals of the flesh.
On the surface, Bobcat was responsible for the boys’ death, by arguing that they deserved the old cars, despite them being unsafe. But with this paragraph, and the way Proulx creates a brief “Overview Effect” by taking us up into the cosmos, tells us that Bobcat has unwittingly wished evil upon his grandsons, but indirectly. His envy of youth and his mapping his own old age onto theirs is so silently powerful that the iron teakettle hears him anyway. Christina has possibly involved Bobcat’s wishes by taking it out to him as he worked in the garage.
Apart from this revelation, there’s a twist in the plot of the tale. When Christina wishes her brother dead, she kills an illegitimate brother nobody knew of until now.
Christina has the kettle and she alone knows what it can do. No one else has worked it out. So we can safely extrapolate that she’ll use it, not always wisely, and that her other brother is soon for the scrap heap. But before he goes, he is unwittingly causing harm via his own bad feelings.
TAKEAWAY TIPS FOR WRITERS
Study “Dump Junk” if you would like to insert some magic, but you would also like to start out writing a realistic setting. In other words, if you want to keep the fairytale element as a reveal.
Because of the big revelation that this story includes magic, it reads quite differently the second time round. We deduce, in hindsight, where Vivian got Christina’s three new dresses from. But even in minor descriptions, knowing hindsight changes the meaning. The ‘strapping hulks’ of great-grandsons is sadly ironic given that they’ve been killed because they weren’t strapped into their car seats.
As Proulx describes the junk-strewn house, we get a very clear image of the entire property in a few deft paragraphs. I definitely get the feeling Proulx has done her own large-magnitude clean-up job.
The old lady had gone in for jars, fabric scraps, and old clothing that might be used in a quilt, and, of course, recipes. She was a tireless clipper of recipes for Golden Raisin Hermits, Devil’s Food cake, pickles, leftovers masquerading under such names as “Pigs in Potatoes” (leftover sausages and cold mashed potatoes), “Roman Holiday” (leftover spaghetti with chopped string beans), “Salmon Loaf” (canned salmon, more leftover spaghetti). For decades Vivian Stifle had pasted the recipes in notebooks, account boos, novels, and books of instruction, each collection dated on the flyleaf. There were dozens of them lined up in the parlor glass-fronted bookcase. The recipes disclosed that the Stifles’ diet was dominated by a sweet tooth of enormous proportion. The old lady must have used ten pounds of sugar a week on chocolate cream pie, “Filled Cookies from Oklahoma,” and cream cake. She made her own maraschino cherries, too, and ketchup, the old kind of mincemeat that called for chopped beef, suet, and leftover pickles juice steeped in a crock – food that nobody now knew how to make. Still, the corporate food purveyors had been making headway, for many of the recipes featured Crisco, Borden evaporated milk, Kingsford cornstarch, and other mass-produced foodstuffs. Sometime in the 1950s she had stopped collecting recipes. The last book on the shelf was dated 1955, and there were only a few recipes pasted onto the pages of a Reader’s Digest condensed book.
The detail of rat droppings in the bags really resonates, because that’s exactly what you find when you’re cleaning them out after a rat or a mouse infestation.
“There are just hundreds! Now I save some of the plastic bags, but these – they’re all mouse droppings and dust.” The paper bags stuck to one another in great chunks as though they were trying to return to their earliest incarnation as trees.
“Watch out, Aunt Christina, you can get hantavirus messing with mouse droppings.”
“Dump Junk” is a masterful example of a fairytale revisioning. Proulx has borrowed fairy magic and used ‘the granting of wishes’ as a metaphor for ‘the passing down of intergenerational violence’. Bad feelings travel down. The overall message becomes: A history of poverty and family violence doesn’t just stop in its tracks, even if subsequent generations ostensibly haul themselves out of it, due to living through more prosperous modern times.
As of this moment, there’s no mention of Proulx’s short story on the Wikipedia page. I’d have thought someone’d include that, since Proulx is a well-known American writer and, as a result, tends to put places on the map.
An old highway and the newer Lincoln Highway divide the 1.5 square miles of red dirt town of Wamsutter into three portions. The Google car didn’t bother driving all the way in, but allows us a glimpse of the place from the periphery.
With its bright blue sky, low horizons and red earth vista, this little town could almost exist here in Australia, maybe somewhere near the SA, NT border. The idea that a wolf could live in Wamsutter is already ridiculous. Pan out a bit and you’ll find plenty of greenery nearby-ish.
However, something tells me this is not a story about wolves, per se…
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”?
Buddy, a man in his mid-twenties is having some bad luck. The jobs he’s taken since finishing school at 16 all seem to end. While house-sitting for his parents back home, the place gets burgled. Buddy gets the blame from all sides. He decides to move to a tiny town called Wamsutter, and try his luck finding work there.
But the bad luck continues when he learns the trailer right next door belongs to the sociopathic bully from high school, Rase Wham. Rase has shacked up with Cheri, from the same year and now they have a pack of kids.
Also hanging round is a man who thinks of himself as a genuine mountain man from an earlier century, though it’s clear he makes far more use of modern conveniences than he’s prepared to admit to himself.
One night Rase breaks his son’s arm. Buddy comes home to find Cheri and her kids all in his trailer, messing it up, stinking it out. He drives them to the hospital and, that night, Cheri gets into bed with him and he has sex with her, nearer the non-consenting end of the rape continuum. He considers it rape.
He can see her plan is to get rid of Rase and turn Buddy into her new partner, so he hotfoots it out of there, and makes the decision to head on up to Alaska, about as far away as he can get from Rase. Buddy’s father knows what Rase is like and on the phone encourages Buddy to high tail it out of there without even stopping to gather his things.
But after Buddy arranges the job in Alaska, he does need to go back for his things. He runs into the family while he’s there. The young child whispers that the wolf got his father and that the mountain man friend is his new daddy now.
Wolf symbolism is used in various different ways throughout the story. We know someone is Proulx’s designated wolf (baddie) but she saves that until the end.
Is “The Wamsutter Wolf” an example of ‘hixploitation‘? We are certainly encouraged to laugh at these people. I found myself laughing out loud then cringing at the next terrible turn point. I’m in no doubt that this is Proulx’s exact intention. People who literally live in trailers among trash make for easy comic targets. We tend to other them. But their struggles are real.
Ultimately, this is a story of domestic violence, and one woman’s way of dealing with it. Our viewpoint character, Buddy Millar, manages to get out of that mess, just as the reader can shut the book. But Cheri has to find a way to go on living, and she proves more genuinely ‘mountain’ than her pretend mountain man saviour.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”
Though “The Wamsutter Wolf” is a far more successful example, the plot and characterisation of “The Wamsutter Wolf” reminds me of “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield.
Both short stories star an unappealing woman who disgusts the viewpoint character by her unkempt appearance and rabid sex drive. The reader is invited to share in the viewpoint narrator’s disgust of her.
In both cases she’s wound up with kids she didn’t plan for (or against).
Each story ends with a revelation, from the naive but knowing offspring, that the uncouth woman (perhaps unaided, perhaps not) has gotten rid of her abusive husband by killing him.
Buddy has decided to work straight out of school rather than go to college, so he’s at the mercy of temporary work which keeps drying up.
Our sympathy is firmly with him. We learn that while house-sitting for his parents, the house gets broken into. Buddy goes out of his way to recover what items he can, but still gets the blame, despite the fact this could’ve happened while his parents were at home themselves. I had a lucky escape myself at the same age, when I couldn’t get out of housesitting for my boss while she went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Her place was broken into soon after my house-sitting duties ended. I counted myself lucky it didn’t happen on my watch.
Buddy has a dislike for intellectualism. He sees any sort of knowledge as fake and annoying, which is why he dislikes his cousin Zane, whose speciality is wolves. Yet he could leverage Zane’s connections and get a decent job if he didn’t feel so negatively. By the end of the story Buddy will learn to make use of his connections.
He will also learn to appreciate his father, despite them being at loggerheads a lot of the time.
The romantic opponent, if you will, is Cheri Wham, who had the hots for Buddy in high school and decides he’s her next baby daddy after Rase proves himself an irreconcilable abuser.
Proulx draws the comparison between Cheri Wham and the pack rats who have moved into the abandoned trailer Buddy finds. The imagery is extended with Proulx depicting Cheri a fat woman, since pack rats are larger than your ordinary rats.
Most of this applies to Cheri as well as to packrats:
Each species of pack rat is generally restricted to a given type of habitat within its range. Pack rats live anywhere from low, hot, dry deserts to cold, rocky slopes above timberline. Pack rats build complex houses or dens made of twigs, cactus joints, and other materials. These contain several nest chambers, food caches, and debris piles. Dens are often built in small caves or rocky crevices, but when close by human habitations, woodrats will opportunistically move into the attics and walls of houses.
Buddy is a passive character for much of the story, going along with whatever else is happening. He doesn’t want to go into the rathole of a trailer for a grimy coffee, but he does. He doesn’t want to have sex with a woman he finds contemptible, but he does. We put up with these foibles from him because he sometimes does the right thing — he takes the boy to hospital when no one else will.
Eventually he is kicked out of his passivity when he begins to fear from his life. When he makes plans to move to Alaska, that’s when we know Buddy won’t be swept passively into anyone else’s dramas so easily from now on.
The battle scene is the one where Buddy thinks Rase might come over to his trailer and kill him. It feels like a scene straight out of No Country For Old Men, with a man sitting behind a door, gun to the ready. But the scene is ultimately anti-climactic.
Proulx could have made a conflict-filled meal out of the phone call between Buddy and his father, in which Buddy tells part of a story and leaves out the more incriminating part (the fact he had sex with Cheri). Writers often default to this under the belief that more conflict is always good, and that characters should never be totally honest with each other. But Buddy is completely honest with his father, which actually feels like a bit of a subversion of what we were expecting. Proulx does cut the conversation in two—the first half happens with the mother, then Buddy has to wait a full day before learning if his dad will help him out. During this time, Buddy’s big struggle is with himself.
The big plot revelation (which I should’ve seen coming, having recently read Mansfield’s identical plot) is that Graig or Cheri or both have killed Rase Wham.
All through the story I wondered who Proulx was going to designate as ‘the’ wolf (of Wamsutter). This is revealed to us in the final sentence. The wolf is Graig the wannabe mountain man, who has his own pack now.
Buddy’s Anagnorisis is that his father ultimately has his back no matter how tough he acts. He thought his father was tough, but now he’s really been up close and personal with tough. His attitude towards his own cousin therefore takes a turn — he is able to rely on family connections to find work, so with a renewed appreciation for family, he relies upon his annoyingly know-it-all cousin to find him something.
Perhaps he’s partly learned from Cheri to make the most of your connections.
With Cheri’s life pattern now established we extrapolate that she’ll remain with Graig for as long as he treats her well, then, if all goes well, once he starts abusing her she’ll quickly find a new man to be her protector.
Meantime, our viewpoint character Buddy Millar (our Buddy, not Cheri’s) will move on to a new job. We’re left with the feeling that this time his work will be protected and that his life is looking up from here on in.
Like consent itself, happy endings fall on a continuum.
SETTING OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”
This story reminds me of Larry McMurtry’s Hud, probably because it’s the story of an old farmer with farming values, increasingly disappointed in how his sons are not the slightest bit interested in following the farming tradition.
This is a uniquely 20th/21st century problem for farmers — until there was tertiary education, sons of farmers knew they were going to follow in their fathers’ footsteps*. Now, the child of a farmer can go to university or just move away and do something completely different. In these stories, the old farmer often has the self-realisation that the land does not belong to the family after all, but simply that the family was entrusted with it for a period of time — a time which feels briefer and briefer the closer one gets to death.
*More farmers than you think are women; this has always been so.
Proulx opens this short story as if she’s opening a non-fiction account of an area (which she calls The Sagebrush Ocean). She starts with the general region, comparing land to an ocean, then focuses in on an ‘island‘ called The Harp Ranch. Proulx doesn’t geolocate this place for us. Instead she gets as specific as ‘a small basin east of the Big Horns’ (meaning the Bighorn Ranges of Wyoming). The towns of Kingring and Sheridan are mentioned. Sheridan is a real place on the map — I don’t believe Kingring, WY is. Proulx often does this — she throws in a few real towns for verisimilitude, but her own creations are just that, so she throws in a made-up town which her main made-up town is supposedly on the way to. It’s a great technique and I’ve borrowed it myself.
The characters in this story came of age at the time of the Vietnam War, which affects them in various ways.
This is a harsh landscape. Its harshness is mentioned with reference to grasshoppers and dry, crackling grass, the dust.
The air was baked of scent except for the chalky dust with its faint odor of old cardboard.
This is why Annie Proulx is a legend. Isn’t that exactly what it smells like? Even here in Australia.
Time runs more or less in linear fashion across a man’s life (briefly touching on his ancestor) but there’s a bit of back and forth. For instance, we’re only told when it becomes relevant that Gilbert’s wife left him back in 1977. The Salt Lake Olympics (2002) are mentioned before the events of 1999 in which Gilbert gets a (scam) letter from the ‘California Sate Allocation Department’.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”
Budgel Wolfscale — Proulx has said she likes to write stories which span two (sometimes three) generations. It puts human life into perspective, showing we’re nothing more than links in a chain. It’s humbling. Budgel Wolfscale was the earliest Wolfscale to the area, so she begins with him. She tells the story of his life in a paragraph, something Proulx is very, very good at. She makes it interesting and digestible to the reader by interpolating major life points with tight focus detail:
Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri, on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range. For the next week he rode around the country, finally staked a homestead claim where Scots cows had spent their brief time.
Notice how Proulx mentions the ‘Scots cows had spent their brief time’. She’s talking about cows (because they’re slaughtered before they have time to get old) but she’s really also talking about people, via the characters who populate this story.
Annie Proulx uses the ranch link the various generations of Wolfscales. ‘The Harp skidded down the generations to Gilbert Wolfscale, born on the ranch in 1945…’ Likewise, the house he keeps extending is described as ‘telescoped’.
After a character description of old man Gilbert, we get a flashback to the 1950s, to a formative experience when Gilbert was a boy, taken out by his father to work like a man building the road. The county had no money to fix the road themselves (which turned to quagmire due to heavy melt from the mountains) so the farmers got together. He was too young to be of any actual help, but he made a play corral, returning at various times throughout his life, observing that most of it has blown away. Proulx is making use of the technique of miniatures in storytelling. Gilbert is learning to see his entire life in this telescoped way.
Proulx describes Gilbert’s failed money-making attempts in the same way she described his earliest American ancestor — with a mixture of summary and detail. Details such as putting cranberry necklaces on the turkeys hoping to sell them endear him to the reader, as does the fact he never gives up, and he’s doing his darnedest to compete against corporations who deal directly with supermarkets. We tend to root for the underdog.
Annie Proulx sometimes takes symbols or storylines from fairytale and folklore and puts them in a contemporary story about farmers in Wyoming. We have Proulx’s version of The Frog Princess, Proulx’s version of The Magic Porridge Pot in “Dump Junk“, and now we have a reference to Baba Yaga stories. Baba Yaga fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
In an earlier decade, struggling to finish the job on a hot afternoon, [Gilbert Wolfscale] had cast about for a stick or something to twist tight a diagonal cross-brace wire, but the only thing he had at hand was a cow’s bleached leg bone with its useful trochlea head, which seemed made to jam fence wire tight. It worked so well that he collected and used cow bones in dozens of places. These bony fences and the coyote skulls nailed to the corner posts gave the Harp a murderous air.
Proulx introduces another family of the same generation, the Codenheads. Usually in a story these characters will exist for comparison purposes, as opponents to highlight the shortcoming of the main character. May Codenhead is established immediately as a romantic opponent.
This leads in to the overview of the woman Gilbert did marry, with focus on her regret and quiet disappointment. Like Katherine Mansfield did in “The Wind Blows“, Proulx uses the wind, or rather Suzzy’s attitude towards it, as pathetic fallacy — the wind represents her internal state. This describes Leila’s state of mind in Mansfield’s story as well:
There had even been a day when [Suzzy New] was a young girl standing by the road waiting for the school bus when a spring wind, fresh and and warm and perfumed with pine resin, had caused a bolt of wild happiness to surge through her, its liveliness promising glinting chances. She had loved the wind that day.
But her changing attitude towards the wind signals a changing state of mind. The wind itself is her opponent, or symbolic opponent:
But out at the ranch it was different and she became aware of moving air’s erratic inimical character. The house lay directly in line with a gap in the encircling hills to the northwest, and through this notch the prevailing wind poured, falling on the house with ferocity. The house shuddered as the wind punched it, slid along its sides like a released torrent from a broken dam. Week after week in winter it sank and rose, attacked and feinted. When she put her head down and went out to the truck, it yanked at her clothing, shot up her sleeves, whisked her hair into raveled fright wigs.
Wolfscale wonders if May’s child (conceived before marriage) is his. It’s revealed his wife left him but he’s not lonely. He’s an active part of his community but feels alienated from his male peers who are Vietnam vets. He has a grim fascination with that war.
Hoping to entice his two sons out to the ranch, he puts in electricity. But they don’t come any more frequently.
Old Mrs Wolfscale is taken in by a scammer then falls and breaks her hip immediately. (We’re not told it’s a scammer but we are given plenty enough information to deduce.) Because Mrs Wolfscale is unable to post her reply (and empty her bank account) the fall feels, to this reader, like providence.
Gilbert is required to take his mother to her appointments but is no good at providing emotional support.
The title of the story comes from a conversation his mother overhears in the doctor’s waiting room — a thought experiment attached to a new kind of church in which people imagine Jesus lives among them. I think the idea of Jesus or God coming to earth must be a fairly common thought experiment because we’ve seen it in entertainment e.g. The Acid House from the late 1990s (I don’t recommend that, it’s disturbing), and the idea doesn’t die because this year we get a TV series Miracle Workers starring Steve Buscemi as God. (I’m not sure if God himself comes down to earth in that one.)
The mother is a bit of a caricature, though it is revealed she’s succumbing to dementia, which means it’s probably not an exaggeration at all that she would be fussy about which sponge Gerald uses.
The old woman is expecting mail. The reader is in audience superior position because we know what she’s expecting. Gerald isn’t in on the secret. However, Proulx doesn’t let us in on what exactly is going to happen — is someone siphoning off Gerald’s entire assets? As a writing technique this is interesting, because the audience is half in on something, showing that the dichotomy of audience superior vs audience inferior is not a ‘dichotomy’ at all.
When the mother dies it is revealed to Gilbert that she has nothing in her savings account.
Farming life gets harder with water issues in particular.
It is revealed that his ex-wife has been fraudulent and is now facing jail time. Gilbert makes an effort to catch up with one of his sons who works in a store stacking shelves. At lunch he realises he didn’t know basic stuff about his own family.
He drives home and is alone.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WHAT KIND OF FURNITURE WOULD JESUS PICK?”
The phrase ‘even inept help was hard to find’ feels like close third person point of view rather than an objective fact. We are told in the same paragraph that Gilbert Wolfscale works with more stamina than any horse, so my interpretation is that he is a hard task master who alienates people. This is confirmed later on when Proulx tells us:
He was a model of rancher stubbornness, savagely possessive of his property. He did everything in an odd, deliberate way. Gilbert Wolfscale’s way, and never retreated once he had taken a position.
But notice how Proulx gave us ample chance to make up our own minds about him first (all carefully managed by Proulx, of course).
Gilbert Wolfscale wants to stay on his farm, make money from it without incorporating modern farming practices, then pass the farm on to his sons knowing it will continue in exactly the same way for many more generations to come.
May is Gilbert’s romantic opponent, then the woman he does actually marry, who regrets it and then leaves him in 1977. She takes his sons with her to Sheridan, where they are unable to experience a ranch life. This doesn’t please Gilbert, who wants them to become farmers.
As usual for an Annie Proulx short story we have newcomers who stand in opposition to the established, genuine farmers.
“Them rich pricks are lower than a snake’s ass in a wagon track,” he said to his mother.
The rich people want to buy his farm but they don’t want to carry on the tradition of farming — they want to bulldoze it. At least, that’s what Gilbert thinks. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. Proulx has already established his character, so no one would be able to run the farm as well as Gilbert, according to Gilbert. Gilbert threatens to shoot a man who makes an offer on his farm.
A story often has a big, bad outside opponent (like a twister in a disaster movie or aliens in a SF story). Where there is no big, bad opponent, communities tend to imagine one up. In this case, Gilbert positions the Mormons in Utah as his main opponent, because according to him they ‘seeded the clouds for the Olympics’ and sucked out all the moisture. He’s a conspiracy theorist.
His opponent outsiders include academic experts whose concerns are sustainable farming and the passage of antelope. Gilbert isn’t interested in all that. He is suspicious of book learning and has respect only for people at the ‘coal face’.
Right around the Battle, the character almost dies, even if it’s just metaphorically.
As is usual int he ranch world, things went from bad to worse. The drought settled in deeper, like a lamprey eel sucking at the region’s vitals.
The drought is against him but so are other people ruining the available water.
He fought back.
These are the major big struggles of Gilbert’s life but of course there has to be the smaller, one-on-one, domestic big struggles to finish off that side of the story.
The interpersonal big struggles take place first with the wonderfully named Fran Bangharmer then with his younger son at the fast-food joint. The son is keeping a secret about the other son, which puts them at loggerheads.
When Gilbert realises he didn’t know that his granddaughter Arlene had been ill ‘even a day’ with cancer and that he’d somehow failed to pick up that one of his sons is gay, he realises he’s not on the same wavelength as his family at all. They’re strangers to him. We know he’s had some kind of epiphany or grim realisation because he can’t seem to move when the lights turn green.
But because this is not a reflective sort of character, Gilbert thinks he’s had another kind of revelation, or, he uses another kind of revelation to distract himself from the painful one.
He knew what kind of furniture Jesus would pick for his place in Wyoming. He would choose a few small pines in the National Forest, go there at night, fell and limb them, debark the sappy rind with a spud, exposing the pale, worm-tunnelled wood, and from the timbers he would make the simplest round-legged furniture, everything pegged, no nails or screws.
But the two are connected, because the revelation about what furniture Jesus would pick is a metaphor for how Gilbert feels about life now. Or rather, how he’s always felt, and how his opinions haven’t changed. Gilbert respects basic skill and hard work. He despises anything that makes a rancher’s life a bit easier and now he’s paying the price (as Jesus did).
This anagnorisis coincides with the plot revelation that the mother of his boys has been embezzling money. This is a pretty common technique which makes a story feel extra fleshed-out.
The final sentence suggests Gilbert has regrets about getting into ranching.
As in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, a man is left alone on his ranch, with everyone else either dead or left him because of his difficult personality. But in this instance we’ve got the grandfather figure left alone; in Hud it’s the son.
“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.
SETTING 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 magical 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.
Why beards, though? For obvious reasons, beards are often a symbol for masculinity as a whole. Perhaps Proulx wrote this story to take the mick out of the pissing contests that so often go down between men in drinking establishments.
David Walliams makes fun of the same in a skit from episode one of David Walliams and Friend (the one featuring Jack Whitehall). A chav type (Whitehall) walks into a bar and says to the other man (Walliams), “I’m better than you.” Ridiculous dick-waving continues until the climax, in which it is revealed the Whitehall character is a virgin. This supposedly negates all his masculine features. So often, when male comedians try to subvert concepts of masculinity, they almost get there but ultimately fail. The idea that you can’t be a man unless you have sex with a woman is as damaging as the other markers of masculinity proposed by the chav character.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”
The structure of “The Contest” is very interesting. As I often do on this blog, 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 singulative 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 shortcoming 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. As well as the David Walliams sketch, 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 great irony of being human: the need to stand out and also the need to be like everybody else. (At least, for the neurotypical population.)
The men in “The Contest” 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.
Despite internal rivalries, the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. The conflict in many, many stories works exactly like this: The ‘family’ start off fighting about something insubstantial, but as soon as the outsider baddie enters the story, they band together. I suppose it’s a popular progression because real life works like this. There’s no better way to cement ingroup bonding than by pitting the entire group against another group.
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 symbolic opposition exists between country bumpkins and sophisticated blow-ins.
There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. If you’re the sort of person who can grow a beard, you just hang around waiting for it to grow. So how does one turn that plot starter 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 didn’t tell me about it before he went.”
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 flashiest 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.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in her Bad Dirt collection (2004). Many of the stories in this collection are in the tall story, brutal, regional, humorous tradition, and readers who don’t share Proulx’s sense of humour haven’t connected to these stories as well as they connected to earlier ones. But “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is not one of the light-hearted, comic stories of Bad Dirt. This is one of the ‘substantial’ ones.
The characters in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” are more reminiscent of a typically Alice Munro short story — Mitchell and Eugenie are a middle class couple who started out in New York City, had a second home all the while in Vermont, in which the wife goes to classes on how to attract birds to the backyard and her own business. Proulx tends to focus on rural characters, with middle- to upper-class newcomers as counterpoint rather than the main focus.
Alex Hunt makes some general observations about Proulx’s work which apply fully to “Man Crawling Out Of Trees”:
Some of the most interesting stories (e.g. “Man Crawling Out of Trees”) plot the work of outsiders, or transplants, trying to go inside, become rooted. Mostly, Proulx peoples her landscape with losers: characters lacking sufficient imagination or will or money or luck to create alternative lives in their chosen place and, thereby, gain complexity, some roundedness. Her conventional narrative point of view, a detached omniscience, keeps us mostly suspended above characters, outside them, as though stationary in the weather and wind, at one with panoramic landscape as characters are not. The effect of long- or medium-range camera shots sustains the inequality of satiric comedy, the engraved lines of caricature. The detached perspective lends itself to panoramic evocations of landscape, a fondness for pan shots, rather than sustained closeups of people or extended forays into interior consciousness. That perspective restlessly hovers above like Wyoming’s eternal wind, scouring and stripping down faces, personalities, trucks, trailers, barns. Often we know the varied faces of topography, the fickle forces of weather, better than characters who remain—with such notable exceptions as “Brokeback Mountain’s” Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist—at arm’s length.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
Notice how useful film terms are in describing written work. Notice also that Proulx tends to put the reader in ‘audience superior’ position, by helping us side with ‘the landscape’ rather than with ‘the people’. The people are fools, we conclude, by thinking they can live there and tame it.
STORYWORLD OF “MAN CRAWLING OUT OF TREES”
Writing specifically of this story, Hunt says:
Many of the Wyoming Stories monumentalize landscape, presenting variations upon the them of the “ur-landscape before human beginnings” cited in “Man Crawling Out of Trees.” Proulx gives voice to this gigantic terrain, which sings the morning song of creation.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
When reading Proulx’s work, my usual way of separating setting from character simply doesn’t work. Instead we must treat them as a single entity, to a point.
HOW CHARACTER AND LANDSCAPE ARE INTERTWINED
Mitchell Fair, of “Man Crawling Out of Trees”, represents one of those affluent recent arrivals despised by Wolfscale, whose big pine log home, part of the Star Lily Ranch “estates”, is satirized, though not as forcefully as his wife, Eugenie, a stubborn misfit. This story unapologetically renders landscape monumental. While Mitchell struggles to settle in, Eugenie quits husband and place, fleeing east, and the story closes with the omniscient view literalized in the jet whisking her back to New York. The panorama of Wyoming, in which “it seemed human geometry had barely scratched the land,” matches Mitchell’s earlier infatuation: “Was this what Mitchell saw when he went on those long drives, the diminution of self, a physical reduction to a single gnat isolated from the greater swarm of gnats? The absurdity of living one’s life?” The reference to “human geometry” observable from six vertical miles up ironically recalls the Jeffersonian grid systemmarching west across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and meeting, beyond the hundredth meridian, the “ur-geography” of a Wyoming where imposed section lines appear increasingly untenable, out of place. […] Proulx hyperbolically shrinks and marginalizes humanity to the status of ticks or gnats to suggest that if anything is going to “subdue [the earth; and have dominion over …every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28), it will be that “endlessly repeated flood of morning light” and wind, not ourselves. In the marriage of self and landscape, as native peoples have always known, the latter sculpts the former, not vice versa. Yet a “diminution of self” does not automatically eventuate in or require caricature—the failed rancher personified in Gilbert Wolfscale. Proulx’s detachment and shrinkage also keeps her landscape big. As every mountaineer knows, feeling small is a lesson in humility and source of strength
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
I’m no mountaineer, but I do live in Australia. I recently visited the Australian outback for the first time. (A significant proportion of Australians never go out there.) I experienced this feeling of being absolutely tiny which I’d never felt before. It was quite something, and the entire reason for going, really, since there’s very little out in the middle. I felt it most driving in to Coober Pedy. A Google Earth trip won’t give you that same feeling of being there, but the huge piles of earth visible from the Sturt Highway left me with the unmistakable feeling of being an insect. I felt I was an ant, surrounded by ant hills. This feeling of vulnerability is no doubt magnified in summer, when the temperature soars to beyond the mid 40s (C), and where there’s no water for hundreds of kilometres in any direction.
The vast landscape as described by Annie Proulx in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” in particular is the literary version of what has been called ‘the miniature in storytelling‘. By playing around with differential size, a storyteller can say a lot, symbolically, metaphorically, about the human condition—making us smaller emphasises our vulnerability, of course. Huge landscapes also remind us that human civilisation is impermanent, and that our relationship with the land is one of adversity.
Apparently when writing, Proulx likes to start with the ‘bedrock’ of a place and layer the characters over top. She throws a sleeping bag into her truck then goes visiting. She absorbs the people who live in the places which fascinate her. She reads all sorts of non-fiction work — about the plants, the geology. Proulx had a long history of writing non-fiction before she branched into fiction, and she approaches fiction more like a scholar approaches non-fiction.
Charles Dickens and the American Sherwood Anderson have been cited as influences on Proulx’s work — Dickens because of his characterisations (tending towards hyperbole and satire), and Anderson because of his ability to make a novel out of something short-story length. Also because he’s American and wrote about similar sorts of things.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “MAN CRAWLING OUT OF TREES”
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” opens with married middle aged couple Mitchell and Eugenie Fair driving from Maine to their relatively new home of Wyoming after visiting their daughter, her boyfriend Chaz and their new grandchild. The daughter, Honor, still lives in New England. Mitchell and Eugenie used to live there but moved several years earlier. Mitchell hadn’t been back since.
Now that Mitchell has acclimatised to Wyoming, New England — and the ‘fake’ Adirondack lodge his daughter lives in — fails to impress. He’s glad to get out of the place, which feels ‘shadowy’.
The Adirondacks themselves could be a suitable place for a different kind of Proulx short story, because many of her stories are about exactly this:
Until the late 1800’s, most of the Adirondacks were a rugged wilderness that few dared to venture into. As transportation routes slowly became established later in the 19th century, wealthy city dwellers started taking extended vacations there to recreate and escape from unhealthy urban environments.
Adirondack Style Architecture
Nowadays, of course, houses don’t need to be built with exposed beam ceilings — dropped ceilings tend to give a building a better energy efficient rating. Buildings built like an Adirondack lodge have been built for their style, and this fakeness seems duplicitous and ridiculous to Mitchell. This ironic headline says it all: Rough it like a Gilded Age Millionaire in the Adirondacks.
REAL VS FAKE
Mitchell fancies himself a man who appreciates ‘real’ and ‘practical’ over ‘stylised’ and ‘artificial’. He does not approve of people using these lake houses as holiday homes, nor of the ‘toys’ they leave in their yards (small boats and jet skis?), nor of the pretentious hipster name of his grandson — Halyard (shortened to Hal). He despises the retired policemen whose new work as security for the homes of rich people seems to Mitchell like a huge comedown — unimportant busywork.
In stories where there is fakeness, it often happens that the ‘mask‘ comes off eventually. Rarely, secrets are kept secret and characters learn to live with secrecy.
There has been an argument at the lodge — Mitchell does not approve of Honor’s boyfriend, partly because he’s as old as Mitchell himself, and wears a pretentious ponytail to compensate for baldness, Mitchell believes) , and also because he won’t be straight with Mitchell about how he earns his money. This signals a difference in culture — working class people like Mitchell tend to be more upfront about their incomes than middle class people, who consider it poor taste to focus on such things, instead preferring to make smalltalk about wine and restaurants (as Eugenie is happy to do). Mitchell therefore feels that the boyfriend is being deliberately dishonest with him. Stuck in the middle, Honor tells Mitchell that she won’t give details about her boyfriend’s income until he reveals who her real father is, which hints to the reader a long and involved backstory of which we will never learn in this particular story, but which nevertheless forms a ghost which affects the present. In this way I’m reminded of Proulx’s short story “Bedrock“, in which I was left longing for more information about the main character’s mostly estranged daughter. (I’m also reminded of “Bedrock” for the inclusion of a couple in which the husband is much older than the wife.) It is revealed that Eugenie learned only three years earlier that the man she thought her father is not her birth father, which coincides with Mitchell and Eugenie moving away completely, and probably also with Eugenie hooking up with a man her father’s age. The reader connects these events; they are not overtly connected by Proulx herself, rather listed — it’s up to us whether we connect them or not, but humans are inclined to make connections whether we want to or not. (Writers can exploit this tendency.) The unfatherly kiss Honor gives Mitchell as he leaves is confusing not only for Mitchell, but also for the reader. It seems Eugenie thinks of her father differently now — compounded by the fact that her boyfriend is of the same demographic. Mitchell is disgusted by this. Nothing more is done with this brief moment of hinted-at incest. That’s Annie Proulx’s technique. You never know as reader which details are foreshadowing details and which are simply resonant details which lead to a fuller picture of a circumstance.
This is because Proulx deliberately avoids writing the ‘psychological novel’. Unlike Sherwood Anderson, she doesn’t go into why characters are the way they are.
I do not attempt the interior novel…I always place my characters against the idea of mass, whether landscape or a crushing social situation or powerful circumstances.’
In this, she has more in common with Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck. These writers are known as ‘naturalist’ writers. The setting has a huge impact on her character.
THE CAR TRIP
Eventually, Mitchell and Eugenie reach Wyoming. Mention of the CD player gives further insight into the era. (Post cassette tape, pre-ubiquity of mobile phones.)
Eugenie likes listening to modern country rock whereas Mitchell prefers classical.
Eugenie is therefore revealed to be someone more in tune to the fashions, whereas classical music is older and therefore more ‘timeless’, and listened to by people who eschew music fashions.
Proulx uses the car ride to highlight a growing distance between husband and wife, symbolised at first by the music, but also, more deeply, shown by Eugenie’s new restraint when previously she was inclined to agree with everything her husband said in an act of wifely deference.
They’re driving an Infiniti, a Nissan first released in the late 1980s as a luxury model. The Infiniti is known as ‘an entry level luxury model’, so I imagine they’re owned by people who like cars but who can’t necessarily afford the very best. This much is not said — Proulx gives us only the model of the car, knowing full well the sort of person who drives it — but Mitchell’s attitude towards cars is shown in his attitude to the car program on the radio. He’s got no time for it (because it’s only 10% about cars). This puts me on Mitchell’s side, if I’m honest, though I’m also with Eugenie, who newly sees through the bullshit that a wife is required to agree with her husband else be accused of starting an argument.
THE BURNING TRUCK
Road trip stories are a good way to put family members in close, extended contact with each other — a ripe arena for real life and fictional conflict. Eventually, in a road trip story, something will happen on the outside, and the occupants of the vehicle will band together to overcome their mutual opponent, or else break apart.
Mitchell disapproves of trucks and the way truck drivers road — a sentiment I share living in Australia — and he takes schadenfreude delight when one of them catches fire. Is this a foreshadowing detail? Symbolism? Or is it simply an insight into Mitchell’s slightly vindictive nature?
Mitchell and Eugenie drive closer to home, and Annie Proulx emphasises the trees. Eugenie has a special relationship with those. The description of the old woman (Eleanora Figg) who has now moved out of her ‘scabrous trailer’ into a log hut stands in direct opposition to the Adirondack lodge which Honor lives in — this log hut is authentically simple. (There’s a campground nearby called Scab Creek Campground.)
All the way through, Proulx turns the landscape into a person and the people into the landscape. The old woman ‘seemed made from sagebrush and rock herself’. (See also: How can the setting be a character?)
BACKSTORY OF MITCHELL AND EUGENIE
Once they return home from their slightly mythic journey, Proulx launches into the history of this couple. She’s already made us wonder — how is it that their daughter was fathered by another man and only recently learned of it? Did Mitchell himself know of it?
As a young woman, Eugenie had the face of ‘Pallas Athena‘, according to Mitchell, though now he sees her as old.
This is how Mitchell sees his wife now:
I note with interest that he disapproves of the way his wife has aged (quite normally, and as he has), while at the same time disapproving of his daughter’s boyfriend, who is obviously attracted to a much younger wife. What is it, exactly, that Mitchell does not like about Chaz? Is part of it envy?
Then we get Eugenie’s vision of Mitchell, to balance things out. Mitchell reminds her of ‘a preserved corpse pulled from a Scandinavian bog’, which is a wonderfully evocative comparison in the Proulx tradition — comically so.
I believe Eugenie (Proulx) is referring to The Tollund Man. When he was pulled from a marsh in Denmark, police thought they were dealing with a recent murder victim, he was so well preserved.
By comparing her husband to a corpse, this gives us some psychological insight into how Eugenie views their marriage. And because Proulx is not a ‘psychological writer’, this is how Proulx gets us into the characters’ heads. Via their comical observations, mostly. Through metaphors.
Proulx uses a Biblical metaphor in describing ‘the years before the snake entered the garden’.
Next comes infidelity — these are characters living with uncontrollable lust and vengeance. We learn the identity of Honor’s birth father. In these dishonorable circumstances the baby is ironically named Honor, and the story-reason given is because Eugenie ‘had been moved by Honore de Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot in her French class.
The novel takes place during the Bourbon Restoration, which brought profound changes to French society; the struggle by individuals to secure a higher social status is a major theme in the book.
Is this an allusion? Do the themes in this short story echo those in Balzac’s novel?
Mitchell believed their daughter had been conceived in their five-legged bed, the supernumerary leg a wizened center-positioned stick with a metal glide foot. It was meant to give extra support but failed and beat counterpoint against the floor when they made love.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees”, Annie Proulx
The word ‘supernumerary’ itself has a comic quality to it: It means ‘present in excess of the normal or requisite number’ but when it functions as the inverse as intended, there’s an irony there which lends humor. It is also symbolic, of course — there are extra people who have inserted themselves in the marriage.
Mitchell and Eugenie eventually decide to sleep in separate rooms, and this symbolises a breakdown in the marriage.
Then we get the backstory of how the secret of Honor’s father was revealed — she tried to donate a kidney to Mitchell. Proulx offers this information with a detail which is obviously resonant for the characters involved: the red leather sofa.
Eugenie and Honor sat together on a red leather sofa when Dr. Playfire said Honor could not be a kidney donor for Mitchell because neither her DNA nor her blood type matched.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees”, Annie Proulx
We have our suspicions confirmed that the reason this couple ‘got out of the city’ was to escape the turmoil brought about by this revelation. This was compounded by Mitchell’s ill health.
Mitchell decided to move them to Wyoming partly to avoid paying taxes, revealing right-wing politics. Proulx hints at possible tax evasion. He likes the low population density.
When Mitchell revisits Wyoming for the first time in decades, he is struck by the beauty of the place. Proulx describes it as a heavenly landscape.
Now Mitchell’s own distaste for ‘pretence’ is cracked wide open for the reader, as we learn the first thing he did when moving to Wyoming was buy new clothes and a new wagon in order to disguise himself as a local:
Before they looked for a house they outfitted themselves at a Western Wear store, Eugenie buying two fringed suede skirts, some high-necked Cattle Kate blouses, and a pair of Rocket-buster boots featuring turquoise skeletons. Mitchell got into jeans, a western-cut shirt with pearl buttons. He bought a butter-colored pair of Olathe boots that slammed like a trip-hammer wherever he walked. He stumbled a lot, unable to get used to high heels, especially as he’d just got his first pair of bifocals. He bought a twenty-year-old pickup with four-wheel drive, dark green and dented, something he had always wanted, had a CD player installed, and took to driving around with his elbow out the window. He marveled at the truck’s lack of rust.
“Man Crawling Out of Trees” by Annie Proulx
Notice how Mitchell bought an old truck but installed a CD player, turning it into the vehicle equivalent of Chaz and Honor’s fake Adirondack lodge he so despises.
That description is a comic stereotype of newcomers dressing up, almost in a Halloween way.
Proulx also mentions that Eugenie and Mitchell are on a diet of ‘meat and salad’ — she doesn’t use the word Paleo Diet, but people from Wyoming sometimes like to point out that they were on the Paleo Diet before the rest of the world ever heard of it. That is the natural local cuisine of the area, with lots of farmers about, killing their own meat, growing their own fresh food.
The Fairs bought a house near Pinedale (a real place) near Swift Fox (which is not, or at least, not on the map). Pinedale today has a population of about 2000 and is mostly a tourist industry — gateway to the mountains.
I imagine Swift Fox is the fictional name for a town like Boulder. I’m guessing the house purchased by the Fairs is built in this style.
The story about Eleanor Figg is an elongated character sketch, and has all the elements of a fully-fleshed narrative. Eleanor’s psychological shortcoming is that she doesn’t approve of anything that allows one to take pleasure in life; her moral shortcoming is that she doesn’t like outsiders and likes to alienate them when she first meets them; she ostensibly desires to be left alone but she really desires to have a heavy hand in local affairs, using her three sons as heavies; her plan is to live on meat, potatoes and black coffee until she dies; her opponents are outsiders; her big big struggle comes, we assume, when her son dies of heatstroke on his first ever holiday, even though she’s always instilled strength in them, and respect for the outdoors. This character sketch works especially well as a short story in its own right because of that ironically tragic ending.
The same can be said for the character sketch of Condor Figg and Mrs Conkle.
Wyoming is a place with very distinct seasons, and so lends itself to stories which cover an entire year. When the Fairs move to Wyoming the weather is ‘fair’ (hence their symbolic name), but as Eugenie loses her rose-tinted view of her rural retreat, and of the unwelcoming, intolerant people who live there, her mood changes. In an example of pathetic fallacy, this is reflected in the onset of winter. Once transplanted, this tenuous couple respond differently to their new environs and the relationship falls apart. Even after infidelity and secrets, it is ultimately the harsh landscape of Wyoming that breaks them.
My first impression of the title: A story which links back to a primitive past early in human evolution when we first descended from the trees and started to walk upright on land. And I do think the title is about that — it’s part of Proulx’s massive timescale.
More specific to this story, one day when Mitchell is out driving in the snow, Eugenie looks out her Wyoming window in the middle of winter, she sees a man literally crawling through the trees. He looks like a maniac so she calls the police. Turns out he’s a skier who has broken his leg.
Eugenie has brought a city response to a rural area — a man needed help but she suspected him of being a prowler. She realises (deep down, we deduct) that she doesn’t belong here. When Mitchell learns of the incident, he realises they won’t be allowed to stay here, as they have broken a cardinal rule. You help strangers in need even when they are moral enemies.
Mitchell and Eugenie have problems in their relationship, mostly deriving from poor communication but also from different basic tastes and desires. When they move from New York City to a small rural town in Wyoming, the challenges they face open up existing cracks.
After a particularly trying revelation regarding the father of their daughter, Mitchell and Eugenie move to a completely new place. They hope this will rejuvenate them. They can pretend they are completely different people — people off the land, rather than bohemian city types.
The big struggle is two part:
The man who Eugenie fails to help, and the dressing down she gets from local women
The big argument between Eugenie and Mitchell, which leads to their break-up
Eugenie takes inspiration from the landscape to incorporate into her kitchen designs back East — cowboy kitchens for urban bachelors and ranch kitchens with crossed branding irons over the raised hearths. When applied to race, this is known as cultural appropriation, though here we have a city/rural divide which is separate from race.
“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 ‘Blow-in Dastard’ story, which upends the ‘Blow In Saviour’ 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.
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”
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 setting 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.
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 Blow-in Saviours — 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.
Buck: He lives with a guy who brings trouble into his house. He has a poor taste in partners. His shortcoming 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.
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.
The Anagnorisis 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 Anagnorisis part of this story, 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 Anagnorisis 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.
“Electric Arrows” is one of the few short stories 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.
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” 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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
Offstage 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.
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.
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
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.
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”
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 point of view 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 point of view. 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 point of view.)
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.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A RUN OF BAD LUCK”
Mother of four sons. Not a big part of the story, though the narration opens on Mae in the kitchen and her one-sided conversation with the dog, which allows a bit of backstory about the family. “tall and stooped with smooth, wood-colored skin that made Haylett say “Indian” to her.’ This is an old-fashioned family with simple needs — Mae and Haylett are impressed by such things as an electric kettle. Before we know that Ray is sleeping with Julia, Mae tells us that she likes Julia and encourages her son to get back with her if he can. Amando has obviously given up on the relationship though. The detail of the electric kettle, picked by Julia and Amando, and how Mae kept the green paper with silver bells on it suggests that maybe Mae is incapable of looking beneath surface niceties. By focusing on that gift she’s not delving into the real interpersonal issues playing out all around her.
Father of four sons, husband of Mae and dismissive of her. As a form of meditation (we deduce), he has the practice of writing the daily weather in a notebook. The point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene. He likes to get up real early in the morning and start the fire, ‘He liked turning the dark chill away’.
Son of Haylett. Clover is superstitious and believes that by talking about something in advance (e.g. hunting) you can ruin your luck. Clover might say something like, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” He asks his mother for brown bread because “brown bread brings me good luck”. He also gives a reasonable scientific reason for this — it doesn’t flash white like a deer’s tail, making him a little less likely to become target. Clover has asked Amando to give him his collection of antlers when he died.
Son of Haylett. Does not have the same relationship to ‘counting chickens’ as Clover. Clover and Phil exist as viewpoint characters while Ray and Amando are ‘main characters‘ in the sense that the drama of the story concerns them.
Son of Haylett, though we don’t see him. The reveal is that he is having an affair with his brother’s wife, Julia. We are not told much about him but know he drinks a lot.
Son of Haylett, good hunter, owner of many antlers. This son is presented as the sympathetic son owing to the way he treats his mother (with respect) and for his principles, refusing to tolerate his younger brother’s making mock of everyone and everything.The other sons, accepting modelling by their father, are demanding of her and don’t look her in the eye. Amando is also spoken about in the kitchen before he is introduced. When he does come on-stage: ‘They watched him pull the knitted cap off his sand-colored hair, tight round curls like a drawing; like a drawing too, his heavy lids and amber irises so pale they seemed the color of bog water The narrow handsome face was marked with fine lines’. (Proulx rarely describes characters who are handsome or beautiful. Beauty doesn’t seem to interest her. Even when characters are good-looking, they are rendered more interesting with the introduction of age.) Amando’s relationship to luck: “All this year I’ve had bad luck with everything I touch.” He cites his teeth, the heater in his truck and now the job which will end up costing them money.
Amando’s (ex-)wife, off-the-page. Lives in a trailer. The plot reveal is that Julia has left Amando because she’s started a relationship with his brother, Ray.
“Don’t forget to leave Mero’s check for your mother so she can make the skidder payment and work out the wages.” Is Mero the same Mero from “The Half-skinned Steer“? In that story, an 83-year-old man drives from Massachusetts to Wyoming, where he grew up. Before he set out, did he have some work done by this family? I could be on completely the wrong track here. In any case, the two stories are thematically linked. That may be the extent of it in Proulx’s mind.
“A Run of Bad Luck”…examines the life of a family on the eve and early morning of the first day of deer-hunting season. Despite their father’s advice to the contrary, two of the four brothers, Amando and Ray, have botched a road repair because they were in a hurry, and now the country has handed Amando a bill for redoing the job that equals the family’s whole profit from the original work. Amando, whose wife, Julia, has decided to divorce him, concludes that the reason for all his misfortunes is bad luck.
Later his father, Haylett, and two other brothers, Clover and Phil, discover what Amando has known already: Ray is having an affair with Amando’s wife, who still retains Amando’s collection of deer antlers. Amando, who has shot a deer each year since he was twelve, once told Clover that he wanted to be buried with those antlers, and Clover had imagined them buried on top of Amando “pressing him down into the yielding soil until hunter and trophies all descended to the core of the earth” — a fitting image for a cuckold.
As Clover and Phil sit in the truck with their father after discovering Ray’s affair with Julia, Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”. Sparked by his father’s expression of fatalism, “Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him. Throughout the story, however, there are suggestions that Amando’s own decisions have also played a role in his destiny. Whatever social and economic forces shape and limit his life, it is his failure to adhere to the old ways of proper road building that has prompted the bill from the county. Yet, Amando is also one of many Proulx characters who is losing touch with old ways without connecting with the new, stuck between two cultures and benefitting from neither.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A RUN OF BAD LUCK”
Although Amando is central to the ‘drama’ (I don’t mean in a storytelling sense) it’s not Amando who has the anagnorisis. This is the story of an entire family.
I believe the toxic kind of patriarchal masculinity presented by Annie Proulx in the kitchen scene, with a son requiring brown bread and with the men being waited on by the mother despite her having a paid job is presented as the shortcoming of this family. The antlers are an obvious symbol of ‘successful’ masculinity. Amando is the clear ‘winner’ of the masculinity contest between the men in this family, being a natural at hunting and owner of many antlers.
When Clover asks for these antlers ‘when he dies’ he’s wanting in on this form of prestige. But it’s not just Clover who wants masculine prestige — Ray emasculates Amando in the most humiliating way possible. I doubt Ray wants Julia in particular — he wants to cuckold his brother. By doing that, he wants to shake up the brotherly hierarchy, placing himself at the top, in a sick kind of way.
The brothers are in a constant, mostly subtle, dominance game. I believe it’s no accident that there’s a dog in this story, in the shadows, feeling guilty whenever there’s shouting. This is how dogs behave in packs. This is a human dog pack.
The men plan to go hunting in bad weather. This is pretty much the most manly thing they can do. Mae encourages them to just stay in bed if the weather looks so bad — they can’t do that, of course. They are men. Mae represents all that is feminine. Staying home would be a girlish thing to do.
The plan to ‘hunt’ is a proxy for their plan to play dominance games between themselves. Sure, they do want the meat. They’ve been eating nothing but pork for three weeks and would like a change in diet. But the symbolism of hunting as raw masculinity and power is clear.
When Haylett’s truck gets stuck in snow this is a proxy big struggle scene. The big struggle is between man and nature. The narrative drive is increased with the ticking clock technique of Amando about to drive down this very road and (as far as we know), make a horrible discovery.
The Battle scene, as we’re coming out of it, as underscored with a brief, disturbing flash back of the bee-sting incident in which a little boy dies.
Some writers think in terms of a four-part Battle scene and this story — short though it is — provides an example of that:
The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions) [Notice how right before the discovery of Ray’s pick-up Clover is talking about who’s got Amando’s antlers. This is Proulx putting the final piece into place.]
The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving) [Though we can’t think in terms of ‘main character’ for this particular story, the ‘moment of truth’ = the revelation that one son is sleeping with another son’s wife.]
The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome) [Again, we can’t think in terms of ‘hero’ in this instance, but this would be the frantic actions of trying to get the truck out of the snow.]
The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing). [The immediate results are that the brothers and father fail in their mission to persuade Amando nothing is wrong.]
The Anagnorisis is not that Julia is sleeping with Ray. That is a plot related revelation for the reader. The Anagnorisis for Haylett and for the younger two brothers (at least, I assume they’re younger), is that ‘What’s happening now was already happening this morning and I couldn’t see it’, from Clover’s point of view, but also applied to Phil and Haylett.
Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him.
What does that mean, exactly? My interpretation: Clover, presented as the least mature of the brothers all the way until now, has suddenly grown up a little when he is able to empathise with his father right at this minute, imagining how the old man must be affected, given that he is part of this big family problem because he created these men (if for no other reason besides).
There’s another trick writers use for Anagnorisiss, utilised often by Annie Proulx: the Anagnorisis phase is accompanied by a description of light and bright colour:
The trees behind them filled with light, and then the rear window flared yellow.
This sentence has a dual purpose, though — the reader is meant to wonder if Amando has killed his brother with his shotgun. Unless the light is connected to the world/plot of the story, it will feel too obvious in a ‘And then he saw the light!’ kind of way.
Karen Lane Rood avoids coming down either way on whether Amando did kill his brother/wife. You might be able to argue it both ways, but I don’t think he did.
The rear window flaring yellow was probably imagined by the men in the truck, all on edge. The sun is coming up at this time, filtered through trees. Or the yellow could be the writer’s metaphor to accompany the Anagnorisis, as I mention above. They don’t hear the gun, though they try to. And if Amando already knew of the affair, wouldn’t he have shot the pair already, if he was of that nature? Proulx mentions a ‘piston knocking’ which is a stand-in for the gun, but actually refers to the mechanics of the truck. Note: Once again, in this phase of the story, Proulx has linked trucks with death by comparing the sound of a truck to the sound of a gun.
Clover will forever associate trucks with tragedy.
ON THE THEME OF LUCK
Luck can mean various things, depending on context. It’s a volatile word. Some languages — like Japanese — have a concept of ‘luck’ but you wouldn’t say, “Oh, aren’t you lucky!” to a child after receiving a much-wanted birthday gift. That particular idiomatic phrase doesn’t exist. (Japanese speakers are often telling each other to ‘work hard’, ‘try your best’, which sits in direct opposition, I feel.)
Scientists don’t do much with the concept of luck, but then how to explain the fortune of being born in a body which fits your environment, allowing you to thrive? What’s that if not good luck? Well, there’s a scientific word for that, and if more people knew it, it might save some arguments:
The word dates from the 1660s, comes from Greek and originally meant “pertaining to conjecture.” Today it’s used in the adjectival form, mostly in a phrase like ‘stochastic variable/outcome/process/model’. It’s an essential concept in anything quantum, too, because no one can explain why some photons pass straight through the window while others bounce back to give us a partial reflection. Stochastic processes are at work. And if the entire world is made out of atoms, quarks and whatnot, then I believe the entire world is built on a stochastic process.
In layman’s terms, you might well call it a kind of ‘luck’.
Like the characters in Proulx’s story, I have found the concept of ‘luck’ problematic in conversation.
Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”.
I know people with fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who insist, vehemently, that ‘There’s no such thing as luck.’ The implication, from what I can understand, is that God manages everything exactly how he wishes, giving humans autonomy to make their own bad decisions. Ergo, if bad things happen to you, it’s not luck — it’s bad decisions on your part. This worldview partly explains the strong link between Christian fundamentalism and right-wing, TEA party politics — worship God, God will look after you. Make good decisions and you, personally, will lead a good, upright, cherished and bountiful life. But this thinking is not limited to those with a religious mindset. Others will claim there’s no such thing as luck because everything is down to hard work and personal sacrifice.
I find this line of thinking hugely problematic in a world with so much inequality. It’s an attitude exploited by politicians who are entirely lacking in human compassion themselves, out to build their own family fortunes at the expense of everyone standing in their way. If there’s no such thing as luck, then people with terrible lives are there because they’ve made their own bad decisions, right?
On the other hand, I can’t dismiss the role of hard work and sensible decisions entirely out of hand. Luck and hard work are all part of a big, messy network in which decisions are never made in a vacuum. How far to take this last line? How fatalistic are the stories of Annie Proulx? This is a fascinating topic with realworld implications in everything, from how we vote to how we live our lives.
“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:
Are writing a story in which the reader is asked to switch sympathies, or to question their sympathies after a reveal. Another story which does this is “Shut Up And Dance”, from season three of Black Mirror. Asking an audience to consider our empathies after revelation that a character is a sexual predator is especially subversive in the current political climate. While Annie Proulx is not well-known for being a feminist writer, this is a subversively feminist story (but only if you read until the end, which can be a problem). Proulx makes use of writing tricks to help us empathise with Perley more than Maureen in the beginning: He is old and perhaps incapable of maintaining his farm; he has a wife who doesn’t cook food he likes and who won’t touch him in bed; his previous wife died; his new wife is changing everything about what’s ‘rightfully’ his house; the reader is unlikely to ‘approve’ of the modifications, since her taste is grotesquely kitsch.
Related to that, this story is an excellent case study in how to make that transition between sympathetic and alienating character. Annie Proulx uses details — before we learn that Perley is a pedophile we are shown him on a pillow cover cross-stitched with Dutch girls, for instance.
If you are composing an opening sentence which you want to carry different meaning when the reader comes back to it a second time. This is probably because you’ve guided the reader into a new way of thinking by the final paragraph, and now they’re curious to re-read, wondering how on earth that happened. In short, subversive stories are especially well-suited to an opening sentence with a revised-different meaning.
Or if you’d like a model of how to create an opening paragraph which stands as a condensed, metaphorical version of the entire story.
Annie Proulx makes heavy use of something similar to a ‘transferred epithet’. I don’t think her descriptions count as that exactly because the epithets describe the objects as well as the humans (not instead 0of). We might instead call this technique a kind of pathetic fallacy. A flawed character looks through flawed glass (when it’s his vision of the world which is flawed).
Perhaps no more than many other of Proulx’s short stories, but this is another excellent example of a main character described as part of the landscape. In this case, an old farmer literally feels like he’s turning into stone. This ties in with the title — this is a story about beds and who we share them with. If we share our bed with the wrong person it feels hard as rock:
Atoms of this granite whirled in his body. Its stony, obdurate qualities passed up through the soil and into plant roots. Whenever he took potatoes from the heat-cracked bowl, his bones were hardened, his blood fortified. But Maureen, he knew, was shot through with some wild astral substance so hard and dense that granite powdered into dust beneath her blows.
‘It was a very sharp, clear day when he began to lose the farm’. This marks the transition from backstory to ‘frontstory’, which is a little similar to how picture book writers switch from iterative to singulative.
Proulx likes one-syllable words, which can be seen in the names she often picks for her characters (though not in this particular story so much). In a phonetic emulation of the hard, unforgiving landscape she uses words like ‘crump’ and ‘blat’, with their hard sounds that make them sound like curse words without actually being curse words. Notice, too, how ‘crump‘ and ‘blat‘ are being used as nouns. Some words are both verbs and nouns, but Proulx thinks nothing of turning a good-sounding verb into a noun as she sees fit.
Foreshadowing such as ‘The guilty scents of willow pollen and the river in spring flooded the room, the looming shape of the past was suddenly uncovered like a hand pulled away from a face. He seemed to feel drying mud beneath his nails.‘
Colour motifs — the colour blue is connected to Maureen, who likes a blue variety of potato which I believe Annie Proulx made up — ‘brute’ potatoes, perhaps a riff on ‘butte’? For more on fantasy food, listen to this podcast. Perley and Maureen get married in (cold, white and blue) winter, which contrasts against the first time he married, late summer, under a cast of yellow. Perley himself is connected to the colour yellow, which at first is presented to the reader as something happy (connected to summer and warmth), but the wonderful thing about the colour yellow is that it can be used both ways, and when something can be used for both positive reasons and negative, you can count on Annie Proulx making the most of that. Yellow also indicates old age and sickness. (Another example of Proulx using both sides of a word is in “Heart Songs“, in which a woman is sweet and fruity and delicious, but the blackberry is also an invasive weed, so that particular romance is naturally, fatalistically doomed.
CHARACTERS OF “BEDROCK”
The story opens with Maureen, splitting wood in a bare yard surrounded by a circle of broken bark. This is a subtle way of setting her up as a witch. (According to witchcraft, a magic circle can protect you from harm.) The dark sky and lightning paint a picture that could come straight out of Sabrina.
The bark itself is broken — almost a transferred epithet, if the bark were not also broken, because later we learn that Maureen is herself broken. But she is wielding an axe. The broken will become breaker. This is a masterful opening scene, a nutshell version of the entire story.
Maureen is four years younger than Perley’s own daughter.
Like an archetypal witch, her weapon of choice is poison. We first learn of this when Perley detects a sugary taste under his denture.
Significantly, when we are first introduced to Perley, he is watching her. On a re-read, it is very creepy. This is how he preyed on her in the first instance — watching the girl as she worked. He’s watching her braid bouncing — long hair in a braid is a symbol of girlhood more than anything. Through Perley’s eyes we see her girlishness. This is what attracts him.
Perley’s daughter at first seems a wholly unsympathetic character. She is the classic unaccepting child, rejecting the new step-parent to the detriment of her father’s happiness, concerned only about inheritance. But by the end of the story it’s clear that there’s an entire backstory of Lily and her father, and she has good reason to reject him. In a small community, it’s impossible to think she doesn’t know about her father’s pedophilia.
One paragraph tells us that Lily identifies more with her mother than with her father. Lily knew why the mother had saved a poem — to put on the gravestone — whereas her father had no clue.
The off-stage character — Perley’s widow. In close-third-person from Perley’s point of view, we learn that Netta had a ‘low, dry voice’, and that their conversation was functional but not companionable. She had houseplants.
I’m not convinced Lily has married well. Samuel has empathy for his father-in-law and suggests the way to fix his loneliness is to marry again.
A romantic potential for Perley, before Maureen comes along. But Perley can’t imagine cohabiting with a woman stuck with the task of bringing up her grandchildren rather than let the state take them. In short, although Perley wants a partner, he wants one without ‘baggage’, even though he himself has baggage, and women his own age are stuck in these caregiving roles and therefore, that in itself, makes them less attractive to same-aged men. Annie Proulx obviously sees this common late-life marriage issue for exactly what it is.
Maureen’s older brother and also an abuser, using his younger sister, who is already ‘damaged goods’, to take over the old man’s farm, despite knowing the sacrifice on his sister’s part.
STORYWORLD OF “BEDROCK”
Another regional critique embedded in Heart Songs sees Proulx swing to the opposite pole from New England’s conventional portrayals, balancing their romanticism not with realism but with impoverishment and grotesquerie as if to shock, rather than persuade, her readers into questioning what they may think they know about the region. In “Bedrock,” the ageing farmer Perley is finagled into marrying the much younger Maureen Mackie. Almost immediately, she takes over the operation of the farm and savagely beats Perley when he tries to object. The farm runs to ruin, and Perley spends less and less time in the house while Maureen sleeps with her brother in the bedroom. At the end of the story, we learn that this entire episode is the Mackies’ revenge for Perley’s having raped Maureen when she was a child. The physical and imaginative center of “Stone City” is the long-abandoned compound of the Stone family. As one character describes them,
They had all these shacks with broken-down rusty cars out front, piles of lumber and empty longnecks and pieces of machinery that might come in handy sometime, the weeds growin’ up all crazy through ’em everywhere. The Stone boys was all wild, jacked deer, trapped bear, dynamited trout pools, made snares, shot strange dogs wasn’t their own and knocked up every girl they could put it to. Yessir, they was some bunch.
Rural farmhouses, Proulx seems to be saying, can be facades for all manner of human perversity, and the pastoral hills breed horrifying social pathologies and violence. This is not the sort of thing that makes it into Vermont Life.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
This ‘facade’ of a pastoral idyll is also known as an ‘snail under the leaf setting’. Suburban areas of cities are often used as snail under the leaf settings, too.
While Proulx may attempt to reverse the polarity of Vermont from charming to chilling, it remains an exotic place apart, a screen upon which visitors can project their desires for a different and somehow more fulfilling life.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
For all their knowledge of the land and how to live on it, Proulx’s rural characters are not idealised as “nature’s noblemen.” They are not merely victims of a national market economy that has made their ways of earning a living obsolete, or of the intrusion of influences from outsiders and the media that has weakened and in some cases destroyed aspects of traditional culture. In these stories Proulx depicts the effects of years of poverty, backbreaking work, domestic violence, incest, rape, and anger that sometimes smoulders for decades before it erupts in acts of revenge. The stories often end with ironic twists of characters’ expectations, for which Proulx has prepared the careful reader with earlier clues.
Perley is well aware of his own voyeuristic tendencies, but now he realises it’s been reciprocated:
They must have seen him, too, in his warm woolen jacket, driving the shiny truck along the road with his little daughter beside him, the new freezer. They stared at the house every time they went past the farm.
We don’t know if Bobhot and Maureen will return in the morning to finish their poison job on Perley, but there’s nothing in the text which suggests this will happen. More likely, in line with Proulx’s pessimistic view — the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.