California Literary Review

Book Review: Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

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May 31st, 2011 at 2:44 pm

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Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx
Bird Cloud
Annie Proulx
Scribner, 256 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆


Searching for Home

Place, in literature, is often the most complex of characters, boasting variable backdrops with tones and textures of every mood imaginable—windswept cliffs, checkered floors, twisted roads and rivers, cobwebbed attics, portentous slants of light and so on down the centuries.

But what about home? If it has traditionally signified safety and normalcy—a walk in the garden, say, or a cognac by the fire—it has also been framed as a place of melancholy, dysfunction and impasse—think Long Day’s Journey into Night, Crimes of the Heart, Ordinary People.

As narratives go, the idea of returning home or building one continues to be appealing because it concerns so much of what is elusive and rewarding in the human saga of trying to find purpose, be content and belong. At least for a time, anyway, until the wind and snow become too much and people go silent and move away. Annie Proulx, in her memoir, Bird Cloud, recognizes the limitations of knowing what a home should be and might become:

After years of wrestling with awkward domiciles I thought I knew what I needed in a house. I’m afraid I still don’t know, which is another way of saying that for me there is no perfect house.

Proulx is a searcher and wants to find her slice of land and build a house on it. The landscape of western Wyoming is important, the names of things and how the grasses sway, the weather driving through the Medicine Bow range, and the immense and changing sky. Nature, birds especially, become part of a quest which leads the author to high cliffs, prairie and wetlands, a 640-acre property that, for better or worse, enchants Proulx:

Top and bottom the land was seriously overgrazed and neglected, yet the day I first saw it I also saw a small herd of mule deer, pelicans, bald eagles, great blue herons, waterfowl, ravens, scores of bluebirds, a harrier, a kestrel, and, glued to the cliff, thousands of swallow nests….The property was beautiful and unique, remote and powerful, and I fell for it, hard. It was also unfenced, surrounded by cattle ranches, without electric or phone lines anywhere near. But I was in love.

So she christens it “Bird Cloud” and decides to buy it. Yet from the very start, the proposition is precarious and elusive because Proulx’s expectations confront so many forces she has no control over—people, weather, materials, time, even birds:

… I felt like one of P.G. Wodehouse’s characters, who when things take a turn for the worse, sense that the iron has entered his soul. I believed then that I should halt the entire proceeding and sell the property. I made out a painful little pro and con list.

With a house ready to live in, the property will be worth more, advises Proulx’s accountant, and so she presses on with the project, securing permits, negotiating schedules, signing checks, and waiting anxiously for everything to turn out okay. But haven’t we heard this story before? Despite Proulx’s unflinching eye for detail and knack for capturing the moods of vast spaces and shifting horizons, too much of her account sounds like mere research and reporting.

We understand what she wants—a dream house on a rare and secluded property boasting spectacular vistas and birds of every feather—but where is the story, the one where she discovers something more than how to deal with a builder, trust an architect, or settle on a design for her kitchen cabinets?

Proulx’s sobering tone and impatience with the building process feel as honest as the emails and phone calls she recites, but eventually become incommodious and stifle the first cause of her undertaking. What keeps the pages turning in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is not the author’s depiction of a roaring 1920s Paris, but the lure of nostalgia, hard-won insights and his rendering of what it meant to be young, poor and happy for a time, maybe even in love, as he hit his full stride as a writer.

Although Proulx seems to be making a conscious decision not to delve inward, there is little pathos and nuance in her reportage between progress reports. Yet in the early pages there are moments, however fleeting, that stretch comfort zones and signal to bigger opportunities for discovery and return:

The first house I can remember vividly was a tiny place in northeastern Connecticut, not far from Willimantic, a house which my parents rented during the late 1930s from a Polish family named Wozniak. I liked that name, Wozniak. I can draw that house from memory although I was two to three years old when we lived there. I have a keen memory of dizziness as I tried to climb the stairs, of being held fast when my sweater snagged on a nail…. My mother gave me a box of Chiclets chewing gum, the first I had ever seen. One by one I licked the smooth candy coating off each square and lined the grey lumps up on the windowsill. How ugly and completely inedible they looked.

I wanted Proulx to linger longer in this realm, in the wonder of seeing afresh and seeing again many years later. Might those “grey lumps” foreshadow what she comes to endure as she moves from Connecticut to Rhode Island to North Carolina to Maine? Be careful what you wish for? Things are not as they first appear?

Too many of Proulx’s vignettes are like sparks that can’t quite light the fire. It’s easy enough to guess at their significance and potential, but there is a nagging feeling that the author doesn’t entirely believe in the shape of her story and may be out of touch with the sensibilities of her audience. Despite a house of facts, readers are given little reason to care about bird or cloud.

  • Chris Roberts

    On pristine acres, amidst the natural verity of open space, Annie Proulx sets about superimposing her vision over the rugged beauty. The pastoral is not meant to be enjoyed, but reworked because the author must indulge her self-absorbed, petty minutiae ego on how to build a house, no actually, a “home,” an ode to herself. She has failed grandly both in the quest and the memoir, which is self-indulgently unreadable. Thoreau failed too, absent the selfdom:

    From my “The Rogue Henry David Thoreau”

    What sort of evil madman goes to the American woods and builds himself an English cabin that is made out in plaster and shingles? It goes against the very grain (pun intended) of the all-American, throw-it-up, log cabin which is entirely more conducive to the sounds and smells of nature pouring through its ill-fitted logs. How quaint this English cabin, wrong on so many levels. Perhaps our man Thoreau was an English spy, plotting to overthrow the Stars and Bars with his army of muskrats, turtles and butterflies.

    To Annie Proulx: Wyoming is indeed rugged, a spirit that absolutely refuses to be documented. The monumental film disaster that is “Heaven’s Gate” tried in vain to capture Wyoming’s Johnson County War of 1892. It was and is an overly obvious artifice and tagging your book a memoir makes it no different.

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