Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

It seems that the only thing Annie Proulx cannot write about is herself. Lest you think this is an indictment of her new memoir, Bird Cloud, let me assure you that it is not. Don’t be fooled by the back cover description of the work as “autobiography, history of a place, naturalist’s journal”: this suggests a level of intimacy that just isn’t present here.

No, Bird Cloud is about Annie Proulx in the same way that a dissected frog is about a microscope; only by inference, omission, and distance do we begin to see what it is that Proulx does not want to say plainly.

 The simplest pitch is that Bird Cloud is about the construction of her ideal home on a 640-acre stretch of Wyoming wilderness. And that’s part of it. But the most interesting part for Proulx fans will be the realization of how difficult it must be to live life as Annie Proulx, to be possessed of the desire to know everything about something, even unto the spoiling of it.

Her restless inquisitiveness infects all elements of the book: from her examination of her life-long rootlessness, to her historical digging into the ugly history of the land’s former owners, to the imperfection of all human creations. Her careful mapping of the property unearths faint reminders of its original inhabitants and their fate.
Her reading about the wild-fowl of the area leads her to the story of an infamous eagle-killer, who would roam the Wyoming skies in a helicopter, rifle in hand.

These anecdotes and forgotten histories are the only real path into Proulx's mind; she tells us very little of what she feels or thinks. Her troubled family history gets the slightest brushstroke: the centuries-long genealogy of her “hard to know father” is here, but any sense of what Proulx thinks of him is omitted. She recalls carrying one of a pair of sisters, twins, across the lawn as a child, but they never appear in the text again. She has a couple of children, but their father remains loudly silent.

It’s hard not to see her minute re-enactment of the house’s construction as a metaphor for her own life: beautifully conceived, carefully and painfully crafted, but in the end cold, lonely, and unsatisfying. Her similarities to her most iconic character, Enis del Mar, become distressingly clear: a wounded loner whose temporary retreats into the high country are ultimately upended by the brokenness of this mortal life.

By the close, I found myself seeing Proulx much as Proulx saw her beautiful, damaged homestead: “Wildlife has cautiously moved onto the property, several elk now spending the winter near Jack Creek. Owls enjoy the busque at the east end. Skunks wander around, eating insect and bothering no one. A sage grouse restoration project is in the talking stage; it would produce water and shade for these birds. The land has generously responded to the slightest care. I wish I had a lifetime to watch it recover.”

Soon though, the realities of this feral fortress of solitude wear on Proulx, and like her beloved pair of Golden Eagles, it is time for her to move on to someplace free of the stain of self.


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  1. I've seen some positive and some negative reviews of this book. I haven't read any Proulx. Would this book be a good place to start?

  2. Donovan-
    No, I wouldn't start Proulx here; fiction is her strong suit. If you like short stories, start with OPEN RANGE. If novels are more to your liking, THE SHIPPING NEWS is the way to go.

  3. I recently read Bob Dylan's autobiography and it was a similar thing - anything you wanted to learn about him you had to work out for yourself.

    I've not read any Proulx. I think I'll take your advice above and start with "The Shipping News".

  4. I'm not a huge fan of memoirs - I'm never sure if I really want to know that much about a living person. Still, her prose is so fantastic that it might be a worthwhile venture.

    I loved Open Range, but felt that The Shipping News was quite blah (purely because it wasn't to my taste). Still, I can always think about giving this a shot. Thanks for the review.

  5. Sam-
    I'm not surprised to hear that about Dylan. At that point, seems like it shouldn't be called autobiography or memoir, just Stuff That Happened.

    There are definitely moments where you get vintage Proulx prose here, especially in the final section when she is writing about birds. I think if you are already a Proulx fan, you will find this interesting (though I would wait for the paperback...)

  6. I second Shipping News. I found it superior to Close Range.

    Ape - based upon your review, I may skip this one.