Love & Nature & Prose in Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”


Unqualified Analysis / Friday, September 7th, 2018

Last Sunday, I really wanted two things out of a read: thoughtful descriptions of nature, and a genuine love story. I haven’t been reading much fiction lately (been catching up on my style guide game). And the last short story I’d read was the dreary, drab, and emotionally bleh “Architectural Salvage” by Will Self.

So I wanted something real. Something human and genuine. Something not a style guide.

My search results for nature and love intersected at one story: “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx. Now, it’s possible that I’m the only human being in the country who’s never seen the film nor read the short story. Naturally, I was excited to do a first-time read of something so highly regarded.

If you’re familiar with the story, then you probably get why I legitimately cried for about fifteen minutes at the end of the story. Like, ugly-cried. Because “Brokeback Mountain,” though it is one of the most powerful love stories I’ve ever read, is just as much about hatred as it is about love. It doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a searing indictment of homophobia and toxic hyper-masculinity in subsections of American culture.

Though I’ve read a few books that have made me cry, this is the first short story that’s had such an emotional impact of me. Proulx delivers an unblinkingly brutal glimpse into the horrors of homophobia. And she does it with some of the most breathtaking prose I’ve ever read in my life.

Since then, I’ve tried to analyze why Brokeback Mountain, despite its brevity, was able to deliver such a powerful emotional punch. Eventually, I realized that it’s not just the subject matter (incredibly poignant though it is); it’s the way Proulx varies her prose to create emotional impact.

***

Proulx emphasizes the “happy” or at least liberated moments for the main characters, Jack and Ennis, by building in lush and dramatic descriptions of the Wyoming landscape. Specifically, these descriptions highlight their brief moments away from societal strictures.

Now, her writing is incredible throughout the story. It’s just that in scenes where Jack and Ennis are detached from nature and one another, Proulx’s writing style reflects their emptiness. She replaces lofty descriptions with dialogue and more matter-of-fact prose.

When the Hi-Top folded they moved to a small apartment in Riverton, up over a laundry. Ennis got on the highway crew, tolerating it but working weekends at the Rafter B in exchange for keeping his horses out there. A second girl was born and Alma wanted to stay in town near the clinic because the child had an asthmatic wheeze.

Oof. The story hardly lingers on the details or descriptions of Ennis’s life. Proulx opts for a quick recap of an entire marriage and two children. It’s sparse and a little hopeless. Ennis’s life is so devoid of passion or interest that Proulx uses the passive voice in describing his children: “a second girl was born.” But while they’re together on Brokeback Mountain—in nature, away from human society’s cruelty and judgment—the language really sparkles. It’s active, fierce, and full of life.

Dawn came glassy-orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows, and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.

I mean. Maybe you don’t think that’s one of the most evocative descriptions of a scene in nature you’ve ever read. Maybe. But when I read it, my breath caught in my throat. I’m a sucker for this type of breathless description and imagery that makes me really inhabit a scene. I even enjoy, truly, the fact that it’s all a big melodramatic. I think it works. The way Ennis and Jack throughout these scenes are constantly roped into nature, made a part of the scene.

Ennis and Jack, the dogs, the horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind.

Not only does Proulx convey the astounding beauty of the Wyoming landscape, she emphasizes that Ennis and Jack, in their element, are part of the natural order of things. They are the water flowing in the forest, the smoke in the mountains. It’s only outside of their fishing and hunting trips that their worlds become close and confined. Stuck in a loop, as Ennis describes to Jack:

Whoa, whoa, whoa. It ain’t goin a be that way. We can’t. I’m stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop.

Despite the grimness of a hyper-masculine and macho culture, love infiltrates even their most hopeless moments. A letter from Jack to Ennis offers the first hope he’d felt in years:

The fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on and in June Ennis had a general-delivery letter from Jack Twist, the first sign of life in all that time.

In the “real world,” the human-centered society inhabited by Jack and Ennis, there is relatively little beauty to be found. Ennis gets a divorce from his wife. He lives in little apartments in unpleasant towns. His life has no color. During these scenes, Proulx holds back her imagery and descriptive powers. It’s still incredible writing but it’s different. Measured. Ennis and Jack’s everyday lives are sort of grim-and-grainy.

In their last scene together in “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx emphasizes clarifies the power of the moment, drumming up emotion in readers like me with her descriptive passages. Once more, nature is fierce, evocative, and free in Proulx’s prose:

The tea-colored river ran fast with snowmelt, a scarf of bubbles at every high rock, pools and setbacks streaming. The ochre-branched willows swayed stiffly, pollened catkins like yellow thumbprints. The horses drank and Jack dismounted, scooped icy water up in his hand, crystalline drops falling from his fingers, his mouth and chin glistening with wet.

I mean. Ugh. Jesus. She’s so good at words. And maybe it’s all a bit much, verging on the edge of purple prose. But for what she’s trying to do —evoke strong emotion —I think it works.  As in the first few scenes of the short story, here Proulx describes Jack as one with nature, “glistening” along with the river water. When Ennis finds out an awful truth towards the end of the story, he expresses his grief in terms of the only emotional reality available, besides Jack:  the wild outdoors where their bond formed.

The huge sadness of the Northern plains rolled down on him.

I think that’s where I really lost it. I’d been primed throughout the short story to associate Jack and Ennis with the freedom and beauty of the western landscape. And now—to hear his loss expressed in terms of the Northern plains, I just…

Again, it’s very unusual for short story to drum up this kind of emotional impact. There usually simply isn’t enough time to relate to the characters strongly enough, at least for me. Proulx is a very special writer, who knows exactly when to hold back and when to allow her prose to be dramatic and compelling.

***

I’ve read a few Annie Proulx interviews in which she bemoans ever writing “Brokeback Mountain.” Why? Because she hates how heartbroken fans send her fanfiction with happy endings where things work out just fine for Jack and Ennis. She’s understandably miffed at this because these fans fail to follow the point of the story.

“[They] can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it.”

I understand why fans might want to add cheery endings to this story (I mean, when I say I cried, I cried A LOT). But I also understand where Proulx is coming from. She didn’t set out to write a simple love story.  Or a story about how beautiful Wyoming is. But she did use those two powerful elements—love and nature —in concert with her rad prose to create an extraordinarily emotional read.

 

*Also, just for fun, I googled Annie Proulx prose and found an article in the Atlantic that absolutely rags on the way she (and a lot of popular authors) writes. The author of the article is of the opinion that critics call Proulx “evocative” and “compelling” without actually understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. I disagree (hence) this review, but it was a really interesting article and made me reassess some of the ways I’m willing to worship authors for their prose.  If you’re a dweeb like me you might enjoy the read! Also, the author, B.R. Myers, skewers Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo. It’s fun.

19 Replies to “Love & Nature & Prose in Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain””

  1. Well done review. Any story that draws a tear (or a flood of tears), has done its job. The intentional cycling of sentiment evoking language must be a Level Five writerly topic. I’ve touched on the sensation while writing: stark and terse while depicting an antagonist, plush and inviting for the protagonist, but my control lacks. Will have to read BBM now. Thanks.

    1. Thank you! I’d love to hear what you think of the story. Also, if you’re in the mood at some point, the article in the Atlantic that I linked to at the end of the review, “A Writer’s Manifesto” is fascinating as well. It’s strange linking to it because the writer feels the exact opposite way I do about Proulx’s prose, but I love looking at literature from multiple perspectives.

        1. It was a little TLDR for me as well. I sort of skipped around – but ultimately couldn’t resist the good fun of reading criticisms of authors 5000x better than me. Balm to the soul.

      1. Having seen the movie and, having been aware of the controversy, the love affair had less impact on me. But was touching nonetheless. I had a friend back in my late teens, who I loved as the brother I never had. We were inseparable for all our years of high school. He died a few years ago. The loss still affects me.
        The writing is fine. Some great passages. Thanks for the suggestion.

        1. I’m sorry for your loss. It’s incredible how strong those bonds can be from when we’re young – even after so much time has passed. I’m glad you got value from the story. I thought it was such a well done glimpse into love & loss, and it took me to a place of genuine emotion I rarely reach in short stories.

          1. More than that, your (are you both people here?) your notion of drawing attention to the two intentional styles evidenced, have already made me aware of how I approach my writing. That is worth (10x) the price of admission here. Thanks.

          2. You’re so welcome, and I’m so glad it’s helpful. The reason I write these articles on the pieces I read is so that I can understand writing better every day. Makes me feel really great if it happens to help other people as well! And I am all the people here! Ha. Just going through a brief identity crisis as I decide how I want to publicly associate myself with my blog. My name’s probably going to change a million more times.

  2. I loved the movie (it made me cry) and now I MUST READ THE BOOK! The excerpts you included are great and I’m a sucker for lush, beautiful writing and rich emotion. Plus I spent a month deep in the Wyoming wilderness being a hermit and the descriptions take me back there. Wonderful, thoughtful review and recommendation. 🙂

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who was reduced to years. I definitely want to see the movie after reading the story, but I need to leave myself some time…I’m still reeling with how emotional it was.

      I think you’ll really love the story. I included some of my favorite descriptive passages, but there’s so much more. I’ve spent a little bit of time in Wyoming so it really resonated with me, but I’m envious of your hermitage. It’s so incredibly gorgeous out there.

  3. Oh man, I remember when the film based on this story came out. I was in a Catholic school at the time, and everyone was freaking out like Satan himself was walking among them. So much anger.

    I actually haven’t read the story though. However, the snippets of natural-related prose you included in this post remind me of T. E. Lawrence’s descriptions of the deserts of Arabia in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom; definitely very good writing.

    1. It’s such a peculiar concept that something like Brokeback Mountain could actually cause people anger. What a weird world we live in. Though it’s been more than a decade since the film came out, so I hope that attitudes have evolved somewhat since then.

      And yes – very good writing. She really captures some of the raw beauty of the west in her descriptions. I really have to check out the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (or at least an excerpt) one of these days!

      1. Oh, the outrage was real. It was a “sinful” movie due to its depictions of homosexual love, and yet another example of America’s moral decay.

        My guess is that while many people are less offended by homosexuality than they were ten years ago, a portion of this country is even more homophobic than before; it’s a result of them feeling like they’re being “persecuted” as part of a “culture war.”

        I certainly recommend you read Seven Pillars one of these days. And I’ll put Brokeback Mountain on my reading list for post grad school 🙂

        1. What a horrible thought – that some people in our country are full of so much hate, and getting worse. The idea that homophobia still exists in any form in America blows my mind.

          And yes! I hope you get the chance to read it. I can’t help but think that your post-grad reading list is extensive!

          1. Whoa…your name changed. Is that your real name or a pen name?

            Yea, there are indeed still many people who cling to such antiquated notions as homophobia. And as the general climate in this country becomes more accepting, they become more convinced that they’re the ones who are under attack. For the people I knew it was very much a religious matter.

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