Saturday, May 02, 2009

Annie Proulx: The Shipping News and Close Range

I’ve been reading all this Proulx at that time of year just before the new greenery has started growing, when it’s as though only the skeleton of nature is there. The bare bones of it all, ready for sculpting as it were. Even though the forest is full of trees you can see so far. No leaves obscure your line of vision. The ground is flat, covered in dead grass, and it feels as though I could walk anywhere, just fix my gaze on a spot far away and start hiking. I can’t see any obstacles – or rather, they are all in plain view; they haven’t been hidden yet. Even though I can tell that it’s all ready for new growth, bursting with life, it also seems so vulnerable. It’s such a contrast to the almost perversely opulent wealth of foliage brought by July. Walking into the forest then you are surrounded by different shades of green, it all closes in on you and I for one get these ideas of building a secret house deep in among the trees (an idea that has stuck with me for many years, ever since I read The Prince of Central Park by Evan Rhodes as a child). In these months of spring such an idea seems ludicrous, there is no secrecy no matter how much you’d want it. You can’t even thrown an apple core under a bush and expect it to be hidden – all rubbish comes out in the open.

This may sound like a post about Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but no, I do have a Proulx-y point: I wonder if part of how much I’ve enjoyed her books is the fact that I’m experiencing a similarly bare landscape as the ones she writes about. Or, at least it feels like bareness is a huge part of it – a wide open sky, endless plains or endless sea … sparsity and rough weather (the last bit perhaps doesn’t apply to my situation. It’s been a bit cold and windy, sure, but that’s it.). I suppose in a way I’ve only had to look out the window to relate, to get my own illustrated version of what I’m reading. Nature suiting the tone of the novel.

I’ve seen the film made of The Shipping News, some years ago. I can’t remember that it made a great impression on me. I think I was kind of interested in how it had an edge of grit and pain, even though it was mostly lost in Julianne Moore’s lovely face. This edge was an echo of the book, I see now, of all that Annie Proulx writes. Like I said before, she writes about people. And bad things happen to people, and yet they go on living, and perhaps they even turn out wonderfully well, considering. Possibly Lasse Hallström was a good choice of director, since when he’s at his best he does a fine job of showing real people. But the novel is much more complex, shows a lot more nuances and delves more into the many more or less quirky characters that populate the pages. A scene in the book that’s a little bit funny would in the film become slightly cheesy I think, “local odd-balls dropping one-liners in pub” typ of thing. But it all works on paper. It’s very very good.

Close Range is the collection of short stories that includes Brokeback Mountain, of cinematic fame. I still haven’t seen the film, but the short story is great. All of them are, but some I like more than others. There are more marvellous names, by the way and of course: Scrope, Freeze, Muddyman, Wrench. Some of the stories are realistic, others, like A Pair A Spurs have a fantastic edge.

I've been thinking about all the things I would like to say about Proulx for more than a week now, but they slip my mind. I'd like my words to be a punch in the face, a command to read this author, but I fall short of that. So just take my word for it. I seldom read authors that really touch me, that make me remember so much of what they've written, but this is one of them. One of those that make you genuinely glad that you haven't read all the author has written yet. You still have some to look forward to.

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