- The Brokeback Book: From Story to Cultural Phenomenon
We all remember Brokeback Mountain as the "gay cowboy movie." Or perhaps we remember it as "not, in fact, a gay story, but a sweeping romantic epic with 'universal' appeal" (31). We may even remember it as not, in fact, being a "cowboy" movie at all, because (as some viewers asserted) there's no such thing in reality as a homosexual cowboy or because we see the film more as a soap opera, a melodrama, or even as "neo-Marxist propaganda" rather than as a Western (6). Some may remember "Brokeback Mountain" as Annie Proulx's short story, and those familiar with both story and film may agree that one is superior to the other but may not agree on which is the superior accomplishment. These multiple and conflicting responses to the Brokeback story are fully explored in The Brokeback Book.
As William R. Handley notes in his introduction, there are "several cultural contexts in which one can illuminatingly situate" Brokeback Mountain, and "these various contexts illustrate a rich paradox about the cultural significance of this groundbreaking film" (4, 5). In the twenty-three essays collected (a few reprints, most published for the first time), the authors vividly explore the generic, political, and social contexts of the Brokeback story (in its cinematic and literary forms). As James Schamus comments, "Brokeback appears in the midst of new, and confusing, displacements of the sites of gay and, more broadly, GLBT identities—in the vast and disorienting space between the closet and the wedding altar" (41). Similarly, Susan McCabe's essay exploring the "fluid gender identity" displayed by many of the characters (male and female) in the film suggests that Brokeback Mountain (and the contradictory responses to it) reflect our own twenty-first-century gender trouble (317).
The Brokeback Book maps the "vast and disorienting space" of contemporary culture through its exploration of the "rich paradox" of the Brokeback [End Page 335] phenomenon. Although there have been other books written on the topic, this is the most comprehensive in its attention to the short story, to the film, to the multiple contexts in which the story can be placed, and to the multiple sites of reception and response to the story. In addition to the illuminating analyses of the cinematic and literary texts, particularly notable are essays on the installation of the "Brokeback Shirts" (last seen in the film in Ennis's closet) as an exhibit at the Autry National Center, on real-life gay cowboys, on the blogosphere (an analysis of online reviews and commentary on the film), and on the Brokeback paraphenomenon (parodies of the iconic film poster, video parodies, and jokes).
The Brokeback Book also stands out by paying explicit and extensive attention to the western (regional and generic) contexts of the story. Of particular note are Alex Hunt's essay on teaching Brokeback Mountain in Texas (as a particular site of reception), Judith Halberstam's "Not So Lonesome Cowboys: The Queer Western" (which suggests that "the genre was always queer"), and Jon Davies's analysis of the ironies of "Travel Alberta" (Alberta played the role of Wyoming in the film), the advertising campaign designed to bring tourists to the authentic rural West of the film's shooting location (190).