Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Stacks - Brokeback Mountain

“Brokeback Mountain,” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories
by Annie Proulx
Scribner, 1999

A few weeks ago I was reading the Spring ’09 issue of The Paris Review (yes, I do read things that aren’t about sex). It features an interview with Annie Proulx, writer of “Brokeback Mountain” and The Shipping News and in that interview I there was a passage I found extremely surprising and though provoking.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve said that the characters of Jack and Ennis from “Brokeback Mountain” were the first two characters that started to feel “very damn real” to you. (…)

PROULX: (…) I think it happened with “Brokeback Mountain” because it took me so long to write that story. It took at least six weeks of steady work, which is not my usual pace. So yeah, they got a life of their own. And unfortunately, they got a life of their own for too many other people too.

INTERVIEWER: What do you mean?

PROULX: I wish I’d never written that story. It’s just been the cause of hassle and problems and irritation since the film came out. Before the film it was all right. (…) But the problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends—they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild. 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 can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way. And they all begin the same way—I’m not gay but… The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I do how these people would have behaved.

The first thing that occurred to me is that Annie Proulx, as a literary author, leads a pretty sheltered life compared to some writers with a wider following in pop culture. It’s sort of funny to imagine her curiously reading the mountains of slash fiction arriving at her Wyoming ranch. A different writer—say, Joss Whedon, who created the lesbian couple Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, equally influential to a certain group, in their own way, as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and also controversally doomed—would never look at these fan stories. Whedon probably has an assistant whose job is to round file that stuff. You have to feel a little sorry for Annie Proulx, who was not prepared for the consequences of a couple of her characters accidentally becoming pop culture icons.

But, on the other hand, Proulx is right. "Brokeback Mountain" is not a novel. The fantastic film by Ang Lee significantly expands the scope of what is, after all, a short story. Not just a single short story but an installment in a collection of short stories about Wyoming cowboys. Annie Proulx is a very geographical author. The books and stories she writes are about the places the stories occur, not the characters. Proulx characters are frequently the inevitable product of the places they live more than autonomous human beings.

The beauty of "Brokeback Mountain" the short story, as opposed to the movie, is the sense of longing Proulx captures. "Brokeback" the story lacks the movie's grandiose dramatic moments. Proulx tells us little about Jack Twist's life when he's outside of Ennis's company, instead focusing on Ennis, the patient cowboy who over the course of the story watches his entire life pass by as he floats from job to job, living only for the occasional fishing trip with his lover. The story, like the movie, is a tragedy but it is a quieter, more desperate kind of tragedy. It is the tragedy of a man who embodies the socially conservative, homophobic Wyoming cowboy lifestyle in every way except that he happens to be gay -- a fact that his place and time will never allow him to acknowledge and embrace.

Proulx brings up the fact that she is a woman in the interview, and I think that is one of the greatest things about this story. It has really earned a place as one of the watershed pieces of gay literature, yet it was written by a straight woman. In my opinion, we shouldn't be so surprised. It would take an outsider to take this story about an oppressed minority and make it so universally powerful.

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