Friday, April 01, 2011

Reading group: Postcards by E Annie Proulx

Clare suggested this PEN/Faulkner-Award winning novel, Annie Proulx's first, which charts the fate of the Bloods, a Vermont farming family, in the years between 1944, when the elder son Loyal flees after accidentally (it seems) (and secretly) killing his lover, to the end of the eighties. The novel is structured around the postcards sent by and to the various characters over the years, in particular those sent back by Loyal to his family, never including a return address and poignantly revealing his ignorance of their fate.

Unfortunately Clare was unwell and unable to attend the meeting but sent a message that she had found the novel very atmospheric but also hard-going. Introducing the book in her place, Trevor said he had really enjoyed it as a depiction of the flipside of the American Dream and outlined the downfall of the family and most of the characters, since it turned out that four of the members present had however failed to finish the novel. John had given up after about thirty pages as he had found it dull and didn't feel it promised to go anywhere. Ann and Jenny had given up about halfway through, Ann because she had been very busy and Jenny because she said she just hadn't been in the mood for serious literature, but both suspected that if the novel had had the potential to grab them they'd have finished it anyway. Mark hadn't even tried, because he'd hated Proulx's second novel The Shipping News.

Jo said she'd disliked The Shipping News too, but she had absolutely loved this book. I said that my problem with the novel was that it was perhaps the first book I had ever read that left me feeling depressed rather than cathartically uplifted. One of my favourite books is The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry, which similarly deals with the exile and gradual degradation of a main character, who meets a similar tragic end, but I don't find that book depressing at all in the way I found this. There was something about the treatment of the situation in this novel, of the way that all of the characters end up dying with wasted lives behind them and forgotten.

Trevor and Jenny objected that that was just realistic: in real life everyone does end up dead! I said, but we don't all die with a sense of our lives wasted! Jenny said that she thought that a lot of people did reach the ends of their lives with a sense of waste, and she and Trevor said, and most people end up being forgotten. I said, But surely the point of the novel (as an art form) is to transcend that, to give significance to lives. Trevor said it's one point, but I said no, actually, it's the point. Even in life, we see significance in the lives of others even if they die not seeing it themselves, and the point of the novel surely is to focus significance and meaning. But somehow, to me, this novel fails to do that. In fact, as Jo pointed out, not all of the characters in this book feel that their lives were wasted. Daughter Mernelle and her husband Ray are saved by their marriage, and mother Jewell is basically emancipated by the events, yet there is something about the perspective of the novel which makes their lives seem wasted.

Jo said, but didn't I find the writing absolutely beautiful? Those wonderful descriptions of the landscape? I said, yes, they were stupendous, but I thought that this was perhaps the key to the problem: although the narrative is purportedly a shifting intimate third rather than omniscient, on the whole I felt those descriptions were made from an authorial viewpoint rather than that of the characters. I wouldn't say that the descriptions were exactly touristic, but the sense of appreciation of the beauty and grandeur was often at odds with the situations and psychic journeys of the characters. Jenny said, Yes, the farming characters would probably find the landscape pretty grim, wouldn't they? As well as that basic matter of the attitude to the landscape, there's also the question of the metaphorical language in which it's described. I did think it worked brilliantly for the psyche of the skin doctor who buys up Loyal's fields to build himself an outback retreat, and whose emotional focus is indeed the landscape to which he looks for succour but which overwhelms him:
There was too much to look at. Knotted branches. The urgent but senseless angular pointing of the tree limbs. Grass the colour of wafers. Trees lifting soundless explosions of chrome and saffron. Mountains scribbled maroon... 
However, I felt that such language was inapt for the farming characters who are revealed by the framing handwritten postcards as semi-literate. At one point, just after the murder, Loyal's heightened perception of the landscape was psychologically acceptable - He saw and heard everything with brutal clarity - but the terms in which he sees it didn't seem so: Evening haze rose off the hardwood slopes and blurred a sky discoloured like a stained silk shirt. (As John said: would he ever have even seen a silk shirt, leave alone readily think of one?) I felt, as a result, the chief subjects of the novel were the landscape and the author's appreciation of it, rather than the characters, who simply floated towards their inconsequential fates amongst the fine descriptions.

This is reinforced by the focus in terms of event. Of course everyone (in real life) dies, but the novel is so plotted that every character is propelled towards nothing more than their own death, which always ends on a note of waste, as in the description of the death of Mernelle's husband Ray. At the end he fails to recognize Mernelle (after their seemingly loving marriage) and in his mind's eye sees instead a figure from his childhood:  her slender back to him, her bare arms, the square of sunlight on the floor enclosing his own shadow. / 'Too bad we never did,' he said, and died.

John said that this novel had changed his previously firm view that the most important thing about a book is prose style, and Doug, arriving late and having missed the discussion up to this point, said independently that he thought the book was brilliantly written but basically tedious.

Mark (who hadn't read the book) asked, But surely it must be saying something about America, and people said what they thought it was saying: that technological progress had destroyed people like the Bloods. Unfortunately, though, most people felt that the book did a disservice to that message by being too tedious, and I felt it did a disservice to those characters by subsuming them to the landscape.

I said I found the framework of the handwritten postcards rather forced and artificial, not much more than a linking device for the episodic structure: it's not as if all of the postcards were in the bundle grabbed by Loyal when he's first on the run, and in reality many of those communications would not have been made on postcards but in letters. Most people, including even Jo, agreed. Jenny said the postcards had really irritated her, as she found them extremely difficult to read, which meant that she often lost their significance to the chapters they headed, and there were murmurs of agreement. Ann said, with reference to both the episodic structure and the linguistic style, that she wondered if Proulx's narrative mode was better suited to short stories than novels: she had read two volumes of her short stories and had found them wonderful.

Finally, I asked people what they had made of the sections appearing every so often and titled 'What I See' and set apart from the rest of the narrative by being printed in bold (which last Mark said he hates in novels, along with sections in italics). Most people were blank, and even Jo said that she hadn't known what to make of them. It seemed to me now on reflection that that they were intended as authorial intervention, but I hadn't previously been sure, probably because, as I said, there was such an authorial feel to the main, purportedly intimate-third narration.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.


Rachel Fenton said...

I have this book - I've read about fifty other books in the time I've had it. But I enjoy many of her short stories. I will read it.

I love your reading group posts.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I'll be interested to know what you think of it, Rachel.