Jonathan Raban on the Northwest desolation

Raban reviews the unsparing realism of Portland writer Jon Raymond, whose story inspires the film Wendy and Lucy
Raban reviews the unsparing realism of Portland writer Jon Raymond, whose story inspires the film Wendy and Lucy
Seattle-based author Jonathan Raban has a particularly moving and lovely essay in the current New York Review of Books, focusing on Portland short story writer Jon Raymond. Print out Raban's long review and read it on the bus, as I just did. As those drab Seattle bungalows roll by, you'll grasp Raymond's wan and desolating vision of the region.

The main part of Raban's essay concerns the new film by Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy, based on a Raymond short story about a woman and her dog who fetches up in a forsaken town in Oregon, sinks a notch or two closer to the margins of social life, and then heads on to Bellingham for a ferry to Alaska. It's an anti-pastoral vision of the Northwest, whose achingly majestic natural setting casts the lonely hamlets in the suburban notches into a bleaka light. Raban generalizes the point:

[I]n the stories of Raymond Carver, the films of Gus Van Sant, and the novels of Ken Kesey and David Guterson, among others, the Pacific Northwest has become familiar as the place in America where lives of grimly straitened circumstances play out within sight of the now-ironic sublime. The old-growth Douglas firs, the mountains and cascades are there to tease from a distance: it's in the trailer homes and bungalows below, in insufficient, straggling towns, their single highways lined with the parking lots of big-box stores, that most Northwest fiction happens.

The film was shot on a tiny budget, and the whole world tingles with the goosebumps of poverty. That makes it rather well timed for the present economy, and even suggests that the Northwest in the American imagination may revert to some of its earlier them of making do on slim emotional resources in towns that no longer have any jobs. Raban notes one sly nudge along these lines:

A nicely obscure in-joke is embedded in the movie. At the supermarket, Wendy is about to pocket an apple, but sees an aproned stocker replenishing the produce department a few feet away. People who go to art galleries in the region will find the face of the stocker familiar: it belongs to Michael Brophy, the Portland landscape painter, much of whose work has been devoted to ironic deconstruction of the Bierstadt-style Northwest Sublime; here reduced to placing vegetables on shelves at $7.80 an hour.


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