Figures in a Landscape

When writers of fiction go out to peddle their wares to the public, one of the favorite audience questions is “How long did this book take to write?” It is a question which makes sense to readers, obviously, and to journalists, who like to sift authors into categories like “late starters” and “overnight successes.” But it seldom makes sense to practitioners. Maybe it’s possible to pin down the moment when a particular plot line showed its colors against the undergrowth, or when a shift of the light threw up a detail once invisible against its background. You can say where an idea begins, but not where a sensibility has its root. Annie Proulx has emerged over ten years as a writer of classic stature, and profile writers are fond of remarking (quite incorrectly) that she didn’t begin writing until she was in her fifties. They are confusing “writing” with “publishing,” which is an elementary and condescending error. Everything in her work attests to long practice of keen observation, a hoarding of images and facts, and the painstaking perfection of a craft which allows her to address the most pungent and raw subject matter in a style remarkable not just for vigor but for delicacy and finesse. If you were to ask of the stories in Close Range, “How long did these take?,” the answer would surely be “a lifetime.”

Proulx’s first novel, Postcards, was published in 1991; it was the story of a fugitive murderer called Loyal Blood, fleeing from Vermont across the West, successively a prospector, trapper, and rancher; his only contact with his disaster-struck family back home is the series of postcards that begin the chapters. Her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), which won a series of major prizes, introduced its chapters with illustrations from The Ashley Book of Knots. Here she chose the harsh environment of Newfoundland in which to let her main character, a hapless journalist from upstate New York, find an accommodation with himself and his forefathers. Accordion Crimes (1996) explored the American immigrant experience in a densely written novel of epic range and authority. Proulx understands people through the history and topography that shape them. Her battered protagonists have the quality of the landscapes through which they move. Her work comes from the cliff edges and rugged defiles of literature; it is risk-taking, rigorous, and poised. She works language almost to exhaustion point, a ruthless poet hounding it for every nuance, each word whipped into line in paragraphs that build an astonishing stormy power. Like a poet, she sees ordinary things and defamiliarizes them, universalizes the parochial, brings local and specific detail into focus for every reader.

Close Range is her fifth book and her second collection of short fiction. In Heart Songs, published in 1988, her stories were set in rural New England, where she once lived. Here the location is her more recently adopted territory, of empty land, searing heat, bone-wrecking cold, air where one can see clearly …

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