Annie Proulx, Bird Cloud, and Why Journals Are Best Kept Private
by Alexa Johnson, Associate Editor
Fans of Annie Proulx will gush about her ugly-beautiful lyricism, wry sense of humor, hopelessly damaged characters, and the seductively cold sadness of Wyoming. We read her because we want our hearts broken, because after we are done we will want to curl up in the fetal position or punch something in the gut.
We were not expecting a discussion on countertop preference.
Bird Cloud, Proulx’s recently released autobiography, is essentially an overview of family and environmental history, while detailing the saga of building her dream home.
The problem with the book is simple: it’s really not all that interesting.
Who cares about the origin of her last name, how old everyone was when they got hitched, or how many babies the Proulx womenfolk popped out?
Looking at the overall reception of Bird Cloud, I’d venture not many.
The truth is that Proulx’s audience is a hell of a lot more interested in the delicious despondency of her characters' fucked up lives than her own (disappointingly vanilla) family tree.
We were hoping for cowboys and half-skinned steers, but there isn’t even a hint of them here.
It would seem that Proulx’s fatal mistake is an obvious and common one that plagues most bad autobiographies: she assumes that her readers will be interested in whatever she wants to write about. She is wrong.
As an enthusiast of Proulx and HGTV, I should have enjoyed Bird Cloud. Instead I came away underwhelmed by the prose and distraught that I had an aversion to design shows after finishing.
Let’s be clear, I’m not saying Proulx has lost her magic—there are some lovely sections in the book: chapter six talks about the history of Bird Cloud, which is interesting and gives readers a way to emotionally connect to the land that Proulx has obviously invested herself in; the scientific background of seeds and lodgepole pines could please nature buffs in chapter three.
It’s just that the book is lacking, emotionally and content-wise, despite its respectable length.
In fairness, there are nuggets of greatness, mostly where her dry humor is able to take charge, like when Proulx discusses how her mother’s family in New England was considered a good marriage match, because, despite being poor, they arrived in America “only 15 years after the Mayflower” and when she describes how her “introduction to tragic and inconsolable loss” was when her crow named Jim died from car exhaust.
Furthermore, not only does Proulx showcase her substantial comedic gifts, but also reminds us that she is one of the best living lyric writers.
“When the wind blows in summer the entire landscape sways, grasses lean and twist, the willows thrash dementedly. In winter hurricane winds, loose snow loops sidewise in a grinding haze and the whole sky rolls like the ocean, hurling birds like rocks.”
Yeah, she’s good.
However, sometimes Proulx’s gift turns against her, often out of place and overbearing, describing everything in painstaking detail. Without purpose, without some meaning, the descriptions of the landscape even on the first few pages are strangely too romanticized and too ordinary, at some points even sounding like an overblown geography book.
In fact, Bird Cloud brought to mind another writer’s unbearable autobiography about living out west that whittled away at my enthusiasm: Mark Twain’s Roughing It.
With the combination of careful wit and long passages that are terribly painful to read, Proulx’s book is pretty much Roughing It without all the Mormon jokes.
While readers interested in an intimate look at the psyche of this monumental literary figure who reminded America that Wyoming exists, it seems that Proulx doesn’t really care what we want.
Autobiographies by nature are self-serving and some can feel like journals, which is, really, how Bird Cloud reads and it may as well be any random woman with money talking about the beauty of the environment and creating her dream home.
Worse, it felt like while Proulx was remotely interested in having an audience to talk at, she didn’t really want anyone to empathize with.
Despite feeling like I was cheated out of a more stimulating and personal read, I find it hard to criticize her for giving the literary world the finger and writing whatever she wanted to.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t.
Proulx is so talented that it honestly seems silly for her to waste her abilities on writing about picking finishes. It’s not that writing about building a house can’t be great or profound, but she never makes it more than that.
The trials and set backs are hardly issues, only requiring more time and money to fix. While there are some disappointments and complaints on her end, they don’t seem like a big deal. There is no tension, no heartache.
Sure, Proulx has every right to want a house that keeps her from hearing fans, blowers, pumps, and clunks, but keeping a private journal would have been a better option.