Posted Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at 4:17 PM
The basic structure of Annie Proulx’s new memoir, Bird Cloud , is simple. Proulx is a woman who comes from nomadic forebears and has lived a peripatetic life. As she enters old age, she longs to finally build her dream home. After one false start, she acquires what she believes to be the perfect piece of Wyoming land and undertakes the monumental task of designing and building her vision-only to be disappointed by the realization that Bird Cloud (both the name of the house and the cliff near which it sits) is riddled with unforeseen complications and, ultimately, fatal flaws.
In theory, it’s perfect memoir stock. Proulx’s book seems to fit neatly into a hot new genre that Sandra Tsing-Loh described in the Atlantic last summer : books written by middle-aged women about finding happiness not through love, but through real estate. Tsing-Loh writes that in home ownership, as opposed to relationships, "whatever the problem, we can engineer the solution-we just need to roll up our sleeves, invoke a panel of experts, troll for the best prices online, rearrange, rehydrate, tinker, fix, hammer." And frankly, who doesn’t like to live vicariously through someone else’s housing drama? (If you disagree, I dare you to watch just one episode of HGTV’s House Hunters .)
Bird Cloud may seem to be an ideal example of Tsing-Loh’s formula, but really, it’s a far stranger book than most in its class. In a genre characterized by often painful oversharing, Proulx-both refreshingly and exasperatingly-offers up virtually nothing of her personal or emotional life. We learn little of the events that landed her in this particular circumstance. As she builds her fantasy home in the Wyoming wilderness, her only companions are the people she employs and a shadowy set of adult children who float in and out of the narrative with nary a biographical detail to set one apart from another. Nor do we learn much of Proulx’s own feelings: Her emotional range, if this memoir is to be believed, flows between peaceful (sometimes smug) satisfaction and mild, good-humored aggravation. What we do learn about, in four distinct sections, are less interior matters: the genealogy of the Proulx family, the history of the land on which the author builds, the intricate details of the process of constructing her house, and the almost human dramas of the birds whose daily activities can be observed from its many windows.
Proulx’s writing-sometimes stilted and corny, sometimes wonderfully illustrative-lurches through several distinct registers. The chapters on house-building feel like they’re taken from an enthusiastic first-time homeowner’s blog. The bird-watching section reads like it was lifted directly from the journal of a rather verbose naturalist. But Proulx shines when she explores the intersection of history and her own experience, and when she brings to life the rarefied culture of Wyoming and the West. Bird Cloud is an homage to the West-its particular inhabitants, customs, nature and history. But it’s also an exercise in excavating the foundations of things. The history of the Proulx family is the foundation of Annie Proulx, just as the history of the land is the foundation of her dream house. These themes are fertile and fascinating, but it’s the house itself, imbued with so much expectation and attention, that turns out to be tricky-for both author and reader. After a long hard winter, Proulx admits that "no matter how much I loved the place it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed." The pathos is evident, but Proulx never allows us in to explore. The house, as a result, is as challenging a literary device as it is a practical dwelling place: a spacious metaphor, but ultimately an empty one.