Often, when we pick up a book about the countryside, it’s because we want to read reverent descriptions of beautiful landscapes; to revel in the glory of the land we love. We want to read about things that stir something deep within us; “finches’ wings;/Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough”, as Manley Hopkins wrote. We want the pretty.
Even Ted Hughes, who we looked at last month, and his fascination with “nature red in tooth and claw” depicted the natural world as sometimes savage, sometimes senseless, but ultimately astonishing, powerful and worthy of respect - and he frequently found himself compelled to write about nature’s beauty as well as its darkness and capacity for destruction.
However, this month’s literary choice - the short story Brokeback Mountain by American writer Annie Proulx - resists beauty in a manner that’s rare for a writer who writes predominantly about the natural world. I’ve never been to Wyoming, but I feel as if I’ve seen it - the sour yellow light; the dry, dusty grass; nests of weeds; the unforgiving life of a farmhand or a cowboy - through Proulx’s words. I don’t think the state tourism board will be using her descriptions on their website any time soon, though.
Brokeback Mountain - a short story from her collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories and adapted to film by Ang Lee in 2005, winning him the Oscar for Best Director in 2006 - catapulted Proulx into the mainstream, following on from the huge literary success of her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Shipping News. Her style is clear, hypnotic and lulls the reader into a eerie sense of security. Then something - a description of violence so graphic it feels physical; a casual revelation of incest or rape as found in some of her other short stories - arrives like a punch in the gut and we’re completely blindsided. This is no ordinary rural writer.
Brokeback Mountain is the story of a forbidden relationship between two gay cowboys made into the haunting film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams. Although consciously dealing with a taboo, Proulx avoids any kind of overt agenda and steers clear of sentimentality. Instead, she focuses attentions on Ennis and Jack’s frank, uncouth dialogue (“This is a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation” and “I wish I knew how to quit you” are two examples faithfully reproduced from the book in the film), their frustrations and disappointments (“I used a want a boy for a kid...but all I got was little girls”), the wind and the cold and the desolate countryside - and the story is all the more real and moving for it.
Nature lovers, be warned: the land moves Proulx and her characters, but it makes its presence felt “like a claw in the gut” rather than a gentle, stirring passion. She also doesn’t cater to delicate readers: her men are blunt, tough and talk dirty. Women feature less prominently - not surprising in this ultra-macho world - and her unflinching treatment of subjects such as murder and violence regularly draws a sharp intake of breath. But in Brokeback, it’s what’s left unsaid, what’s not there, that’s the real killer - the plaid shirt Ennis finds hanging in Jack’s wardrobe that had “no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.”
If you need converting to Annie Proulx, read Brokeback Mountain before you go anywhere else. Yes, it’s a story about gay cowboys, but it could be about any of us, and about any forbidden love.