AnnieProulx, author of eight books of fiction, including thePulitzer Prize-winning novel, ShippingNews,and the story collection that contains “Brokeback Mountain,” has writtenBird Cloud—describedas “autobiography, history of a place, a naturalist’s journal,” and “themagnificent story of [her] piece of the Wyoming landscape and the house shebuilt on it.” While the book jacket promises that Proulx “turns thelens on herself,” the word “autobiography” doesn’t quite apply,and the word “story” fits only the suspenseful house-buildingchapters in the middle of the book, not the essays on either side.
Proulx once said that imagination develops best inpeople with few resources: “If you have nothing and no place in the world,imagination is an engine of incredible power.” Her fiction is set inplaces with abundant natural beauty but scant shelter and less love. Her characters,with their vast reservoirs of tenderness, find that tenderness is unrequited. InProulx’s fiction, language equals consciousness. Fierce but compassionate, colloquialyet lyrical, intimate while unsentimental, it’s a map of the protagonist’s fears,hopes, despair. We don’t get the equivalent in Bird Cloud—no careful articulation of inchoate urges turning intocompulsion, no unflinching verbal measure of the self’s fault lines.
But we get glimmers. Proulx concedes that she’s “bossy,impatient,” apt to make decisions that “stretch comprehension.” Herwillingness to embrace difficulty has led to truly original fiction—Accordion Crimes,a starkly beautiful novel. Yet strength, misapplied, is hubris. Proulx’sapproach to house-building suggests that she was right to equate scarcity withinventiveness. Building an extravagant house on remote land became an exercise innot just imagination but check-writing.
Buildinga house and writing a book are alike in that reality transfigures ambition. Youuse the materials and skills available, so the end result is different from theinitial vision. E. H. Gombrich said that style isn’t ornament but an agile way ofsidestepping limitation, the ability to unite an ideal with inevitable shortfalls.But an author addresses unforeseen contingencies and alterations alone, judiciously,while an author building a house works with an architect who emphasizes formover function (at least Proulx’s architect did), also a contractor, crewmembers, subcontractors, inspectors. Each has his own problems meeting deadlines,devising solutions, synchronizing his schedule with other people’s, not tomention infinite personality tics, and the requests for money, more money. As ahouse-builder, Proulx lost control over the final shape. She comes close tosaying so when she calls the house “a kind of wooden poem,” acknowledging”I have difficulties with poetry.”
The house-building section reminds me of home-and-gardenTV shows I call real-estate porn, because, watching them, I watch people dothings that, even if I had the chance, I’d feel too prudent or guilty to do myself.Proulx installs three floors in a year, each more expensive than itspredecessor. She stumbles upon far-flung, can’t-live-without materials: artsy cabinetsfrom Texas, a tub from Japan, wood from Alaska, tile from Brazil, a sink she spotsin a magazine ad where it sits in front of a roaring ocean. In the ad, it seemslike sculpture. In the bathroom, it’s nonfunctional, “the snooty sink.”What’s more, the water isn’t potable. Local builders don’t understandnewfangled specifications. Suppliers send “ill-fitting parts.” Utilitiesreverberate and clatter. Proulx’s worst decision comes to light when the house ishundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and still unfinished. The realtorwho said the road to the house would be “maintained” in winter—plowed—was wrong. The house-to-end-all-house-longingis a summer retreat.
Though the book is presented as a coherent whole,the four-chapter story of homebuilding gone awry is a book unto itself,different in tone and execution from the chapters on either side, which areexpository and heavily footnoted. The first chapters are nominally related tohouse-building in that Proulx begins them by noting she lived in many houses asa child while her French-Canadian father chased the American dream. These genealogicalchapters—like the chapter after the house-building section that recounts money-grubbingexploits of white settlers in Wyoming—are reminders that Proulx is a trainedhistorian. Another explores evidence that Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapahoe, andUte tribes lived there. The last chapter, which moves back in time to the only wintershe stayed at the house as builders arrived by snowmobile, records the lives ofbirds.
If Proulx regrets that she fell violently in lovewith a piece of land and couldn’t heed the warnings of friends and family who advisedher to proceed slowly, her regret is stoic, imperceptible, or sublimated intothis final description of an eagle and his mate deciding where to nest. Notingthat “eagles waste no time on tears,” Proulx watches them wing away: “Iassumed she didn’t like the place.”
Editor’s Note: Bird Cloud ranch has been listed for sale.