Bird Cloud: A Memoir, by Annie Proulx, Fourth Estate, RRP£16.99, 234 pages
When one of America’s grandes dames of literature produces a memoir there is bound to be excitement. When that grande dame is Annie Proulx, famous for her solitude, the excitement is considerable. At last, we think, a window on how the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s work (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain) grew out of the landscapes she loved. But the term memoir is a baggy one; and though Bird Cloud is rich in many things – American settler history, archaeology, the winds of Wyoming that hurl birds “like rocks” – it leaves the mystery of how the writer begat the writing pretty much intact.
Bird Cloud is the 640-acre ranch at the foot of the Medicine Bow range in Wyoming that Proulx bought in 2003; this is an account of her frustrated and frustrating attempts to build a dream home in which to “end her days”. With its sheer 400-foot cliff, on which golden and bald eagles nest, its elk, deer and mountain lions, and (as she soon discovers) its relentless winds, August frosts and tendency to get snowed in between October and March, it is certainly a challenging landscape.
As one would expect from a writer of such visceral, well-hewn prose, she demands perfect craftsmanship from her builders and runs up against a litany of mishaps and fallings-out, which at times threatens to slide into a diatribe of petty irritations. Not long after she moves into her house with its “massive, sculptural personality” and windows positioned to frame the landscape and through which to watch the wildlife, she realises that she cannot live there after all.
Early in the book there are snippets of childhood memory, such as the time she took the eye of a halibut being prepared for dinner, dropped it into her full potty, and presented it to her horrified mother as some “bizarre interior part”. We learn of her maternal New England ancestry, 400 years of it, smelling of “fresh milk, split oak wood, autumnal leaves, snow, muggy swamps, photograph albums and cold ashes” and a French-Canadian father whose incomer status was never good enough.
Proulx’s four children get nominal, prosaic mentions as they visit Bird Cloud, dig her out of a snowdrift, then leave, and there is no mention of her three ex-husbands. Instead we meet her builders, the James Gang. They – and she – are the sort of characters we might find in Proulx’s fiction: people with “back pasture business”, who look for fossils and minerals while cooking on a campfire. But none is allowed to develop and this, as well as the absence of an over-arching narrative structure, is the book’s weakness. Sometimes it’s hard not to wish she’d filtered the lot of it through her fiction-writing process.
When writing about landscape, though, Proulx is always a treat, the language dense and nutty in the way of a fruitcake. We hear of a “strew” of rock, of air “stitched” with swallows, of the “black origami” of a pair of ravens. This is a world in which fences are “good-looking”, and a cow’s leap is “handsome”, in which people drive trucks and learn to endure.
Proulx subjects herself to years of stress and financial strain before admitting defeat. Earlier this year, the ranch was on the market for $3.7m. It has since been taken off “due to current market conditions”; perhaps the memoir wasn’t helping. It can’t have been easy for Proulx – a self-confessed “bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered [and] single-minded” woman – to admit she’d made a mistake.
One feels honoured by the disclosure, yet slightly uncomfortable too – and we are left with a potent sense of love gone wrong, of a passion for nature that did not know when to stop and of the itinerant writer sent searching once again for somewhere new. Perhaps, after all, this is autobiography enough, capturing all we need to know of the great – and still mysterious – Annie Proulx.
Susan Elderkin is author of ‘The Voices’ (Fourth Estate)