Saturday, June 21, 2008

Richard Ford

Richard Ford: novelist, short story writer, anthologist, buddy of the late Raymond Carver. He came into my life first in 1996 when a fellow graduate student recommended Ford’s short story collection, Rock Springs (1989). My colleague had done his bachelor’s degree at Harvard and was about to go off to an internship at The Paris Review. I trusted his judgment. I read the book. I didn’t think it was that great.

Since then I’ve read nearly all of Ford’s books. I haven’t changed my opinion of Rock Springs, though. I admit it’s a strong collection and worth the reading investment, but what Ford will rightfully be remembered for, however, is the creation of Frank Bascombe, protagonist of The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1996) and The Lay of the Land (2006). I mumbled some about that latter book online here.

Recently I read Wildlife (1990). I was going to write about it here, but as this NY Times review notes, the novel isn’t a highlight of Ford’s oeuvre, and I’ve struggled to decide what to say. I thought it read like a play treatment, actually. Most of the action takes place over a couple of days. There are a limited number of settings and characters. The plot hinges on a minimal number of key events.

The problematic aspect of the novel is a technical one: the narrative voice. While the action in the novel seems contained by a short span of time, in fact it is not. The narrator speaks about events that happened to him and his family in 1960. However, as readers we’re never sure where the narrator sits in time. What is the present of the "telling"? The action is recounted in the past tense, but the narrator gives very few hints about the value or damage of time on his recollections. Another way of approaching this issue is to ask: What did the narrator learn from the key events in the novel? He presents himself as strangely emotionally mute. The events are significant enough to recount, but as readers we have no context about the present of his life, or the time that has passed since 1960, to evaluate the true effect on the narrator’s character.

Is this a flaw? The Times’ reviewer wonders if the narrator is too closely aligned with the authorial voice. This is one way of stating the problem: "The question remains: has the author separated himself from the narrator sufficiently to signal an independent awareness? It is not so easy to say." I’m not sure I’d accuse the author of aligning himself too closely with the narrator. The insight demonstrated by the narrator’s reflective telling of past events is ultimately too thin to justify the retelling in the first place. Dude, something happened to you. What was it? What did it mean to you then? What does it mean to you now?

That said, we must remember that Frank Bascombe excels at doing next to nothing and learning next to nothing and propagating his concepts about nothingness, like "the Permanent Period." A quick Google search turns up a blog with a good rumination on this phrase:

Whereas the Existence Period is concerned with the fact that "your opponent's the past and everything you've done in it and the problem of getting away from it", the Permanent Period recognizes that you are who you are, so you may as well accept it and forget about; it "tries to reconcile [the] irreconcilables in your favor by making the congested, entangling past fade to beige, and the present brighten with its present-ness" ... etc.
In The Sportswriter, Bascombe describes his life as overwhelmed with "dreaminess." Ford has clearly staked out a theme in these novels. One might easily mistake it as a passive response to life, a poor engagement with "reality." The Times' reviewer finds a hint in looking back at a story in Rock Springs:
One has to go back to ... Rock Springs to find a better clue. There, in a story called ''Optimists,'' which is also set in Great Falls and also involves a family named Brinson, the narrator's mother talks to him about a murder his father has just committed.

Presumably to comfort her son, the mother tells a story within a story about a flock of gadwall ducks taking off from a river and leaving one of their number behind because its feet are frozen in the ice. ''It's just a coincidence,'' goes the moral of the story. ''It's wildlife.''
Nature is beyond meaning and so is human existence. That's about as far as the narrator gets in Wildlife, but in Frank Bascombe Ford has shown he won't settle for anything so simple.

I don't remember enough of Ford's early novels to go too much farther with this line of thought, but I do remember thinking that A Piece of My Heart had echoes of Faulkner that I hadn't expected. Ford is a Southern Writer and the early work falls in line with that tradition -- like Flannery O'Connor's sudden, total violence. Frank Bascombe, however, is a Yankee. He lives in the modern world, selling real estate, even if he did once write about sports and have artistic ambitions (he authored a short story collection).

Wildlife seems to straddle two components of Ford's career. On its own, one must conclude it is incomplete. As part of a oeuvre, it is a specimen most valuable as a point of contrast to other specimens.

I want to end here by linking to an essay by Ford on the short story, called "High-wire performers" (Guradian online, November 3, 2007). The subtlety of thought demonstrated here, particularly the lack of dogmatism or prescriptive advice, is what I value most about Ford. I like his dreaminess, the idea that the ideal is still out there. And even if it isn't, we gotta keep looking.

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