03 November 2009

Fine Just The Way It Is (Annie Proulx)

Annie Proulx makes horrendous people, places and events FINE JUST THE WAY THEY ARE. This is her process, her tool, her particular brand of magic, and I never would have spotted it if she hadn't named her last collection of short stories just that.

Admittedly, I have a warped view of what is horrendous. To me, bad coffee is insufferable. Having lunch with someone and not getting the good seat (against the wall) is intolerable. Living without my hair straightener is INCONCEIVABLE. So naturally, I find these stories of poor and broken people in Wyoming cruel beyond all mortal comprehension, because I'm high maintenance and disgustingly entitled in my outlook on life.

Yet still, I rooted for them. I was happy for them, devastated for them. These, the people described as ugly, poor, unlovable, selfish, racist, stupid... utterly pedestrian. Proulx does not bother to take the easy route and write stories about the innocent, the intelligent, the fair and good. Any person would prove to be interesting under scrutiny. Worthy of our time, our eyes, our $22.95. How then, do writers differentiate between those who are passed over and those who deserve their own worded spotlight?

They choose the beautiful, the well-structured, the desirable people to write about. And I'm not talking about the desirability a husband sees in a wife who has a saggy stomach and discontented attitude radiating from beneath a hairstyle long out of fashion and powdered at the roots. Or the girl with average looks and average brains being charmed by the boy whose speech is clogged with the unfortunate spittle that plagues the over-salivating.

Those are the people whose stories are harder to write and still generate empathy with the reader and thus they are so often the people without a strong literary presence. Which is stupid, because when a writer does bother to create a character who is hard to like and rough around the edges it normally becomes as artful as Don Quixote, the book an ode to imperfection, beautiful through the simple fact of its existence.

That's what Annie Proulx does and then she goes one step further. She neglects to include any action whatsoever in her stories. Each event is constructed as a past occurrence, mentioned in passing by one character or another. At any one time, nothing is really happening. Snippets of family mystery, suspense, skeletons are hinted at, but the writing quickly moves on, choosing to focus instead on a wife musing about her dinner plans. It takes a serious talent to keep us engaged through all this, yet we find ourselves also weighing up the beef and pork options. Because she's just that damn good.

I must apologise for the wordiness and general pretension of this review. I have been embroiled in a big fight with a large pile of torn newspaper and glue for two days trying to make an acceptable model of a dolphin for a Year 4 Art Show. Because I have about a teaspoon of artistic ability in my entire genetic makeup... this has been a trying, exhausting time. I felt the need to prove I could still string a sentence together, having failed spectacularly as a sculptor.

Rating: 9/10.
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