Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Devil and Ms Proulx

I’ve been enjoying Annie Proulx's new short-story collection Fine Just the Way It Is. Proulx, who wrote “Brokeback Mountain” (and probably regrets it now – see the last bit of this interview), sets most of these tales around the farms and ranches of Wyoming, and if you don't know much about life in rural America some of the colloquialisms can take getting used to. But these are very well-paced stories about weather-beaten people struggling with the vicissitudes of life in the outdoors; the especially notable ones include “Them Old Cowboy Songs” and “The Great Divide”.

Also, three notable exceptions to the contemporary-Wyoming rule: “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl”, in which Proulx imagines a bison hunt that might have taken place 2,500 years ago on the same land where her own house now stands; and two droll stories about how Satan passes the time. In “I’ve Always Loved This Place”, the Devil decides to remodel Hell by adding a tenth circle (“to accommodate an increasing number of Total Bastards, most of them American businessmen”) and by creating a particularly hazardous obstacle course for the many pro cyclists in his (His?) domain. And in “Swamp Mischief” he has some fun with residents of the virtual world.
Fetch some e-mail," said the Lord of Darkness. Although he rarely received any messages himself, the Devil had ordered a few of his hackers roasting over eternal fires to collect strangers' e-mail from the Upper World. He had been bored the last few hundred years with very little to do but wait ever since he had put certain observations of steam kettles into the head of a young Scot inventor. The kettle epiphany had booted a species – selfish, clever creatures with poor impulse control, suited to hunt, gather and scratch a little agriculture – into a savagely technological civilisation that got rapidly out of hand and sent them blundering toward The End.
Meanwhile he bides his time by manipulating these poor humans in various ways – such as sending forth a swarm of pterodactyls to confound a group of biologists somewhere in the Midwest. It isn’t immediately obvious what the two Devil stories are doing in this collection, but Proulx has a lot of fun with them. And then again, why not? After all, some of the things that befall the characters in the more earthbound tales could well have been engineered by a diabolical Fallen Angel. Here's a passage from "The Sagebrush Kid", in which a childless woman's attempts to adopt a piglet and a chicken end in tragedy – following which she directs her maternal feelings towards flora.
Mizpah Fur, heartbroken and suffering from loneliness, next fixed her attention on an inanimate clump of sagebrush that at twilight took on the appearance of a child reaching upward as if piteously begging to be lifted from the ground. This sagebrush became the lonely woman's passion. She surreptitiously brought it a daily dipper of water (mixed with milk) and took pleasure in its growth response, ignoring the fine cactus needles that pierced her worn moccasins. At first her husband watched from afar, muttering sarcastically, then himself succumbed to the illusion, pulling up all grass and encroaching plants that might steal sustenance from the favoured herb. Mizpah tied a red sash around the sagebrush's middle. It seemed more than ever a child stretching its arms up, even when the sun leached the wind-fringed sash to pink and then dirty-white.

Time passed, and the sagebrush, nurtured and cosseted as neither piglet nor chicken nor few human infants had ever been – for Mizpah had taken to mixing gravy and meat juice with its water – grew tremendously. At twilight it now looked like a big man hoisting his hands into the air at the command to stick em up.
From here, the story proceeds in an unexpected direction. I’ll only say that the Venus Flytrap is a meek little tulsi plant compared to this sturdy young sagebrush, and that you need long branches if you’re dining with the Devil.


  1. It could see where it all was going on reading the cactus being fed meat gravy laced water brrr...

  2. I have not read this collection but another novel by the writer, 'The Shipping News' which is a riveting tale and set in Newfoundland. The writer in this novel, has brought a haunting quality to descriptions which brings to mind Charles Dickens and Gustav Flaubert. A must read for people who like to read fiction, not just for entertainment, but for deeper understanding of human condition too.

  3. I've seen the film 'Shipping News'. The sagebrush story seems to be like the Roald Dahl one with the baby being fed on the honeycomb wax.

    Must read, then?

  4. Banno: not too much like the honeycomb-baby story, though it is similarly macabre in places.

  5. I find your reviews rather annoying. Proulx doesn't regret having written Brokeback Mountain; she is just annoyed by the letters she receives. They are different things altogether.

  6. Arjun: you're entitled to find the reviews annoying of course, but the bit about Proulx "probably regreting" writing BM was self-evidently facetious. I don't really believe that she regrets writing it (in any significant sense of the word "regret").

    Also, with reference to the last sentence of your comment on the Jhumpa Lahiri post: I was simply talking about the common allegation about authors writing for a western readership; it isn't something I subscribe to myself. And I hope you realised that I think very highly of most of Lahiri's short stories.

  7. Liked this collection too. The 'Devil' stories, were some sort of a counterpoint to the slightly depressing stories (which though have dark humor in them)