Artists of the Year

Framed, penned, screened, danced, sung, shot, delivered: City Pages lauds the artistic creations of 1999

Misogyny is surely no cause for year-end celebration, especially when it's cloaked as revolutionary. But somehow--impossibly--women might take scary pleasure in the sexual threat that Pitt presents. Ever since 1987, when he sauntered onto Dallas (that paean to Reagan-era fat-cat rapacity) and announced, "Hi, I'm Randy," Pitt has positioned himself against big daddies, domestic attachments, and concentrated capital. Memorably, Pitt played the coy lothario who sexually liberates Geena Davis's unhappy housewife midway through Thelma and Louise's feminist roadtrip--then steals her cash. So, too, did Pitt's manic ecoterrorist rage against The Man in 12 Monkeys. Likewise, Fight Club's anarchist brags that by destroying the Narrator's property, he has liberated him from his possessions and thereby realigned his perception. Like the man said, he's not just a pretty guy.

 

Leslie Dunlap is a Philadelphia-based writer and a frequent contributor toCity Pages.

 

ANNIE PROULX

by Elaine Showalter

 

"Sweetheart, lady-girl." It's the voice of a wrecked green John Deere 4030 tractor, the wartiest of all frog princes, crooning love to hefty Ottaline Touhey, one of the few female characters in Annie Proulx's spectacular book of Wyoming stories, Close Range. Ottaline suffers from "minstrel problems," she's the size of a propane tank, and she likes a good bull sale, where "scrotal circumference is damn important." But she's also a fairy-tale princess amid the harsh Wyoming cowboys who are Proulx's main subjects. In this collection of short stories, Annie Proulx gets under the skin of the mythic American hero that D.H. Lawrence described as "hard, isolate, stoic and a killer," and writes a series of spiky, Grimm fairy tales about love and death in a "tough, unforgiving place."

The most startling and sensational of the stories, "Brokeback Mountain," was first published in the New Yorker in 1998, and won O. Henry and National Magazine Awards. It's about the explosive sexual passion of two ranch hands herding sheep for the summer to make a few extra bucks. Although the men separate, marry, and meet only infrequently during the rest of their lives, the duo's affair is not only searingly erotic, but also tender, for each "the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives." Its memory sustains one of the men after the other dies in a roadside "accident" he knows was really an anti-gay lynching.

The story was published a year before Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, but Proulx had sensed from her contact with the macho world of Wyoming ranches and bars the seething anxiety and potential violence about homosexuality beneath the rough jokes. Ironically, her characters, too, are shepherds--traditionally outcasts from the city and society we only hear about at this season of the year--who are present at the Christian Nativity as a sign of divine love and mercy. "Brokeback Mountain" has been optioned for a movie by director Gus Van Sant, and he may be exactly the right person to capture its mixture of semen, sweat, and poetry.

The oldest of five girls, married three times, and the mother of four, Annie Proulx says, "both sexes are human beings and what falls true for one is probably going to be true for the other." Since she moved on from freelance journalism and how-to books, including a doozy on building fences, she has written a series of stories and novels that have taken her further beyond the stereotyped limits of gender than any other American woman writer. Yet these stories about gritty, violent male experience seem absolutely natural and unforced. For this she's my choice for the artist of the year, and my candidate for the new woman of the millennium.

 

Elaine Showalter is a professor of humanities at Princeton University and author ofHystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.

 

W.G. SEBALD

by Alain de Botton

In 1996 a middle-aged German writer living in Britain, W.G. Sebald, published one of the finest books of recent years: The Emigrants. It told the story of four German Jews affected in different ways by the Holocaust. The writing style was extraordinary: essayistic, learned, and at times almost unbearably moving. The form of the book was highly unusual, too. Though described as a novel, it read more like a work of nonfiction, a mixture of travel writing, memoir, and history. It included photographs of the protagonists and of idiosyncratic items like ticket stubs, alarm clocks, and newspapers. There were echoes of Thomas Bernhardt, Laurence Sterne, and Marcel Proust, but Sebald's voice was essentially unique. The Emigrants became a modern classic.

In 1998 Sebald published The Rings of Saturn, an essayistic account of a journey made by the author around Norfolk and Suffolk (born in Germany, Sebald is a professor of German literature at the University of East Anglia). Again there were idiosyncratic photos (of skulls, trees, clouds, newspaper cuttings, etc.) and digressions into history and literature. It perhaps lacked the intensity of The Emigrants, but it was still a very fine book. And now we have Vertigo, which bears all the hallmarks of Sebald's oeuvre: the photos, the digressions, and the essayistic voice.

Though it is the latest Sebald to appear in translation in English, Vertigo was in fact the first of the three books to be written (it was published in Germany in 1990). It is also the weakest. Nevertheless, second-rate Sebald is still worth reading, if only to witness how the author first developed some of the themes and writing styles that a few years later he brought to perfection in The Emigrants. Vertigo is divided into four parts loosely held together by a narrative voice and certain themes: homelessness, writing, Germany, Kafka, Stendhal, and hotels.

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