Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes
I don't disagree with the opinion of B.R. Myers, who has appeared before in these pages, that Annie Proulx's writing can be a mess. The unmanageably long sentences, the similar verbal prolixity on the part of characters separated by miles and years and nationalities and backgrounds, there are all kinds of things about her prose that ... can irritate one.
But as Joseph Williams and Ira Nadel say in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (one of my favourite composition texts, though it's more than that), we describe and think of prose in terms of its effect on us, not purely in relation to its formal characteristics. Bad prose doesn't necessarily doom a novel (no matter what we teachers tell our students about their own prose). Proulx's Shipping News remains one of my favourite recalled reads, though I haven't gone back to test my recollections. I'm confident that it includes many of the things that irritated me about Accordion Crimes, but that doesn't and didn't matter to me.
Because in her earlier novel, there were characters who gripped me. Quoyle and his daughter Bunny; Wavey and her son Herry; minor characters like Nutbeem and Billy Pretty, all of them became and remained familiar and compelling, very quickly. There was a focused story that needed to be resolved, with a narrative logic that we could quickly recognize and connect to.
Accordion Crimes doesn't give us characters to distract us from the clanking prose or the ramshackle plotting. Or rather, it gives us a plenitude of characters, a surfeit of them, a cornucopia - indeed, too many. And it gives us not a story, a plot, a narrative, but a bouquet of stories, a clutch of plots, a ... oh, to hell with it.
I wanted to like this story, organized as it was around the fate of a handmade Italian accordion that was meant to be a man's calling card on arriving in America, the testament that he deserved to work creating such instruments. Instead the man lives brutally and dies horribly, after which it falls from hand to hand of people who also live and/or die horrifyingly. There's the girl whose arms are sliced off by scrap sheet metal that flew off a truck driving by her farm; the boy (who doesn't die) who's beaten so savagely by his father for participating in fraud with a religious healer that his vertebrae pop through his skin; there's rape and murder, predictably. The great weakness for me, though, was the tiring, numbing sequence of peculiar characters described in terms of physical oddity. There was no sign of the sensitivity to human lives that marked The Shipping News, because there were too many characters for there to be any time for sensitivity, and no sign of the evocative prose, because it was hosed onto every surface it might stick to.
Which was odd, because these lives and deaths were horrible. I wanted to feel with and for these characters, but I didn't, because there were too many. I want to impute to Proulx the vision that would mean she did this on purpose (big dark world, can't care too much or it eats you alive, but look closely at the darkness my child, etc.), but that's where the prose style trips me up.
I just didn't buy it. Bottom line: Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes felt to me like an oversized final project for a third-year creative-writing class at a middling university. So there.