Thursday, July 7, 2011

Annie Proulx - A Journey Through Rural America

As a kid, the mental picture I had of America was completely uni-dimensional and came from the movies that I saw and the books I read. The country seemed to be one big mass of rich landscape, cities which seemed to be teeming with all the riches in the world, where people were super rich, oversexed, ambitious, built/ran huge corporations, indulged in corporate/mafia wars. And then, there were the other group who were trying to save the world from the bad Russians. The people seemed to be split into 2 groups only, the whites and the African-Americans. I didn't know much about the various immigrant and ethnic groups like Hispanics etc and the problems they faced. The problems the people in the books I read faced all seemed very distanced from the problems that one got to face in life and in that sense I probably had a distorted picture of reality. Of course, all this is in hindsight only and at that time I was oblivious to these things. Thinking about it now, there seems to have been a complete lack of sense of time, location and the people of the country in the works to which I had exposure too. There seemed to be only cities in America, not even towns leave alone villages in the rural areas. Obviously there were works being written even then that touched these areas, but I was not aware of them. Then as I started reading other authors a more clear and different picture emerged. For instance Raymond carver gave an insight into the American middle/lower middle class, Updike on the suburban/small town American life with the problems of a family. Annie Proulx on the other hand was the one who gave me an insight into the rural American life, the ranches, cowboys running them, the deserts/prairies etc. Right from the first book of her that I read, I have been hooked to her. I don't know if this is the right way to put it, but she is one of those writer who I feel a connect to as a reader. It's like you like a lot of writers, but only some do you feel such a personal connection. For instance, I like Alice Munro, but probably do not feel this. I have read only a couple of books of 'Pedro Juan Guttirez', but he is one writer who I feel extremely close to, as if he is writing for me specifically. This is not anything related to merits or demerits of a writer, but just the way the heart reacts to something. 

The first book of Proulx that I read was 'The Shipping News' and I was immensely captivated by it. I still remember clearly the part where asks his Aunt something about her past life. In such a few short paragraphs and dialogues, I got a clear picture of it. It was the moment that I went 'wow, I have to read whatever she was written', and I have so far not been disappointed by any of her works. I have since then read 2 of her other novels 'Accordion Crimes' and 'The Old Ace In the Hole'. Her characters are not your typical brash, go getting American guys. They are people who go about in life as in a daze, who are frequently dealt bad cards by life and struck down often by misfortune or by their own ineptitude. To be cruel, you could term them as losers. But they somehow manage to get up and get going again. This is not due to some explicit inner strength they have, but because they have no other option. They just have to deal the best with the cards they have been dealt with. Her works are not happy or light hearted ones. For instance the novel 'Accordion Crimes' travels through the length of America across generations as an accordion is being bought and used by several unconnected people of various ethnicity. Most of them suffer a lot, they are trampled upon by life and after all their travails there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Their life ends in darkness as it had been before too. You get an idea of the life in the rural areas from her works. 'The Old Ace In The Hole' is about Bob Dollor who goes around the Texas area, to find locations where his employer can start a hog farming industry. His job is to make the farmers sell their lands. As he travels through the area, he gets to know about the difficulties the farmers face, the challenge of running ranches and forms. They are all down on their luck stories. 'The shipping news' is about Quoyle, a big lumbering hulk of a guy who somehow gets ill treated by almost everyone he comes in contact with. His wife leaves him after selling their kids to a pedophile and dies in a car crash. Quoyle gets his daughters back and shifts to Newfoundland to start a new life. This is just the beginning of the novel and his personal redemption there is at the crux of it. His aunt 'Agnis Hamm' joins him there. She is one of my most favorite characters ever, though she is at best a peripheral one in the novel. She is the antithesis of the normal main Proulx characters. She always finds a way to get things up and running in the worst situations while keeping hidden the pains of her past life.  The bleakness and sadness in Proulx's works could be putting off for some and Proulx herself says in an interview that she consciously made an attempt to correct it with 'The Shipping News'. One could either look at it as Proulx being pessimistic or that she is being realistic about life. 

She is comfortable straddling both the novel and the short story. Her short story collections seem lighter than her novels, but that's only because in a set of say 10 stories if you get a few which are not heavy you tend to feel much better at the end of reading it. Her most famous stories are those set in Wyoming, a rural area. The landscape is desolate, challenging and the characters are grim, eccentric, stubborn, insular and set in their own ways. There is no romanticizing of the rural areas. People are so obstinate and proud that it can lead to tragic consequences like in the story where the main character who is very old sets off on a trip alone, for a wedding which results in an unexpected ending, due to his refusal to ask for help or give up the trip itself. A story that starts on a normal note ends in macabre fashion. Proulx cuts it both ways, she either layers the mundane with dark happenings and sometimes lightens a heavy situation with a bit of dark humor. I am not sure if she has given a fair representation of the Wyoming area, but there have been some complaints about the residents of Wyoming that Proulx has exaggerated things. There are also stories which are not set in Wyoming, but have the usual Proulx standard. The story "Swamp Mischief" about the Devil and how he runs hell is absolutely hilarious. When you think of the American west, you have to consider the native Americans and the pioneers who first settled there displacing them. Her stories touch on these too, the hardships faced by the pioneers who were too stubborn to give up and those who survived did so with luck only. Her stories trace a period from the initial settlements and setting of ranches, the interactions with native Americans to the modern day where ranches and farming is becoming more and more difficult. 

Almost any work of Proulx is a good place to start, but as a novel I would recommend 'The Shipping News'. If it's short story you are specifically looking for any one of her collections would be good enough.  Some 9-10 years ago she had an official website which was functional and had some of her essays, interviews etc, but looks like it has been down for the last 2-3 years. Have read that she is a very private person, so probably the attention she got online must have made here put it down.  

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