Ford, Richard: Canada

canadapicHaving been promised that a bottle of Lagavulin 16 would be on the table, your sharp-as-a-tack correspondent dragged himself away from Robbie’s, and the sunshine on Leith. Soon I was making a rare appearance at the Monthly Book Group, meeting in misty Morningside.

I was just relaxing into the first slug of the amber nectar when the host said “Canada?” “No” I replied, “never with a malt…” and then the frosty stares made me grab my pen…

Introducing “Canada” (2012) the proposer said that Richard Ford was an American novelist and short story writer. His best-known works were the novel The Sportswriter and its sequels Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, and the short story collection Rock Springs. He was associated with the ‘Dirty Realism’ movement, which includes Raymond Carver (see discussion 26/11/08). He was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944, and changed from the study of law to that of creative writing. Like David Lodge, he had combined University posts with his writing career. He had won many prizes, notably the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day.

Ford has described his sense of language as “a source of pleasure in itself—all of its corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page“.

For example, when asked why this novel was called ‘Canada’ he said ‘“Canada” – the word – possessed for me (and still does) what I think of as a plush suppleness. I like the three softened “a” sounds …  sandwiched among those muted, staccato’d consonants. I like its pleasing, dactylic gallop on my tongue. I like its rather stalwart, civic assertiveness to the foreigner’s eye’.

[Run that one by me again? Dactylic gallop??!! Was he serious, or was he throwing dirt in the critic’s eye? The only answer was surreptitiously to award myself another generous measure of Islay’s finest. Now that’s what I call plush suppleness….]

So why did the proposer choose it? Well ….. he went to Waterstone’s to buy ‘The Secret Race’, and it was a “buy one get a second half price” offer. He had read Ford’s ‘Sportswriter’ and thought it so-so, but saw ‘Canada’ and thought maybe he deserved a second chance.

And then the opening lines had him hooked: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later”.

“Canada” much impressed the Group. The book was unusual in a number of ways. The most obvious was that the author kept telling you what was about to happen before he described the event, as above, thus removing, at least superficially, suspense. Yet surprisingly this technique did not reduce the reader’s interest in what followed. If anything it enhanced it, as we wanted to know the detail of what happened. And the detail of feeling and description was Ford’s forte. He had the ability to conjure up the fabric of a scene so convincingly that you felt you were there. He created the very texture and rhythm of human interaction, the way that people thought as they dealt with each other, the way they spoke, the quirky little images of a scene that embed themselves in the memory.

Other writers – such as George Eliot or Henry James – like to analyse human interaction in similar detail, but they could be quite hard work to read without attention wandering. However, Ford was not like that at all. You always wanted to read more, to find out more. He was very accessible, and if the book was relatively long it could quite accurately be described as a page-turner.

To achieve this was literary craftsmanship of a highest order, and reflected a long apprenticeship. Part of the effect was due to his feeling for language and rhythm. He was very adept in not wasting words, and in using short sentences, paragraphs and chapters if needed to hold the reader’s attention. He did not bombard the reader with descriptive passages, but illuminated his work with the occasional striking image.

The structure of the book was unusual. It was divided into three un-named parts, all narrated in the first person by Dell. The first was set in the mid-to-late 1950s in Great Falls, Montana. It dealt with the build-up to a bank robbery by Dell’s parents – his plausible, self-confident and unsuccessful father and his introverted, literary mother. The second described how Dell was spirited over the border to a pioneer town in rural Canada. His new life, as an odd-job man for a mysterious American fellow-exile, soon led to his unwitting involvement as an accomplice in a ruthless double murder. Soon he was again spirited away, this time to a different part of Canada. The short third part, set in present times, sketched in the intervening years in which Dell had become a lecturer in English literature at a Canadian college. After a fair amount of philosophising about what Dell has learnt from his experiences, and about how he survived them, it dealt with Dell’s visit to his dying twin sister in Minneapolis.

Ford’s characterization was very strong. Dell, the narrator and centre of the book, was characteristic of the child of a military family always on the move – very self-reliant and with no friends other than his twin sister. From the outset he was an outsider, a loner, an observer looking through the glass into life and not actively engaged. Dell was attracted as a child to chess and bees – both zones of order. Dell was very accepting and did not blame his parents for what happened. Nor was he scared. He did not let things affect him much, did not allow himself to go under. Sh*t happened, and at end he emerged. Despite the shocks of the robbery and the murders, it was remarkable what a very orthodox and ordered life Dell had lived.

Dell’s sister Berner, to whom he was very close, was very different – rebellious, rushing into things, chaotic. Three times married, she could only live  “on the margins of conventional life”. Berner was unequivocally against her parents at time of robbery, but took to calling herself by her father’s name – Bev – once he was dead. This could be seen as an attempt to reconcile herself to her past, and to her father. However, we knew little about her life after the robbery, as the twins split up aged fifteen.

Dell’s parents were so well drawn you felt you knew that you would recognize them if you saw them in a shop, or walking down the street. We could identify with the problems faced by demobbed members of the Forces such as his father. We also recognized the man who thought he could get away with every scam. His mother had made two cataclysmic mistakes. She had married an unsuitable man when pregnant, instead of putting the twins up for adoption. She had joined in the robbery when she was already planning to leave her husband. In both cases she had weakly caved in. It was intriguing how the parents  had rationalized the robbery into something less than a crime, and amusing how they bungled its execution.

The figure of Reminger seemed a little less plausible, with something of a Gatsby imitation about him. However, Reminger’s character and motivation gained plausibility when he committed the murders. The half-caste Charley Quarters was a very striking creation, but again not wholly plausible, particularly when he was used as the vehicle to recount Reminger’s past.

Ford’s sense of place was very strong. Fifties USA was convincingly evoked, and Canada was brilliantly realized. This was pioneer Canada – lawless life on the margins, carnal and brutal, disfigured by decay and detritus as ghost villages rotted away. It was as different from the middle-class Montana that Dell knew, and the tourist Canada that we knew, as can be imagined.  It was remarkable how Dell remained positive despite living in this desolate borderland.

Crossing the border from Montana into Canada had a symbolic resonance. It took Dell away from his childhood into his manhood, and America became a foreign country much as childhood does. Yet there were some parallels between the two. On each occasion a father figure detonated change. In Montana it was Dell’s real father. In Canada it was Reminger, another chess-player, who asked Dell to play the role of his son in the confrontation that led to murder. Oddly, both fathers were bombers – his father in the airforce during the war, and Reminger in his activist period.

We could not resist discussing relations between Canada and the USA. These had often been tense, as Americans saw Canada as British North America and unfinished business. The Americans attacked Canada during the1812 war, and continued to make plans to invade Canada until well into the twentieth century.

So what were the main themes of “Canada”?

[Alas the group was not finished, but the Lagavulin was. What a great invention the screw top is, allowing you to sneak into your glass a few fingers of red from your secretly stashed bottle…]

The proposer empathized with the book’s sense that the accidental, the random, was dominant in life, and that there was no such thing as fate. This was the “sh*t happens” school of philosophy. It emerged very clearly from the events in Parts 1 and 2, such as the carcase deal gone wrong, the decision to rob the bank, Dell and Aunt Mildred fleeing the authorities etc. The lives of Dell and Berner would have been very different if it had not been for these events. The book could be seen as illuminating the error of the human impulse first to try to control our ‘fate’, and then retrospectively to try to make sense of our life, and give it some importance.

As the narrator put it on the last page: “I’ve often thought that where I live here, now – in the screwy way of things – was meant to be. But I simply don’t believe in these ideas. I believe in what you see being most of what there is, as I’ve taught my students, and that life is passed along to us empty.” However, the narrator was not entirely consistent, as when he said movingly of his father when he turned to crime: “I’ve thought that a long-suppressed potential in him had suddenly worked itself into visibility on his face. He was becoming who he was and who he was always supposed to be. He’d simply had to wear down the other layers to find out who he was.” But then artists did not have to be consistent.

Related to this, Ford seemed to believe that good and evil are not opposing forces but rather a matter of accident. “It’s best to see our life as and the activities that ended it, as two sides of one thing that have to be held in the mind simultaneously…. the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous” and  “how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil.” This might be a debatable position, but the novel certainly brought out powerfully the sense that committing a crime was an easy thing to do, that it was easy to fall through the ice.

Part 3 was the only part to attract some adverse comment. One member indeed felt that the book would have been better without it. Parts 1 and 2 were written in the tone and language of a 15 year old telling the story, not the language of someone reflecting in his sixties. A much older man could never have remembered all the detail with which Dell was writing. Perhaps Part 3 had been an afterthought? There was a hint or two in the acknowledgements that it had proved difficult to finish the book.

Another felt that the narrator was becoming too autobiographical in tone in Part 3. Ford’s childhood had been disrupted by his father’s heart attack, and he had spent much time thereafter with his grandfather, a hotel owner and retired prize-fighter. Had the novelist achieved sufficient distance from his creation?

Another felt that all the home-spun philosophizing in Part 3 was excessive. The author had forgotten the principle of “show not tell”. And it was ill judged to attempt to do his own literary criticism, in the clumsy guise of describing how his literature students reacted to his life story. But just as this reader was becoming irked, the author switched back to story-telling mode as he told the story of Dell crossing the border to meet his dying sister. And immediately the reader was hooked again, as Ford effortlessly conjured up the meeting, with all the little nuances of dialogue that reveal feelings, and all the little details of the scene that snag in the memory. And, for him, this got much closer to felt life than did Ford the philosopher. It brought back what an exceptional writer Ford was.

One member pointed out that Dell’s later life was certainly consistent with what had gone before. He had married an accountant, and had no children. You could say he had taken an “intellectual diazepam” to the strife of life. He had become a teacher, an observer and analyzer of life.

And Part 3 was also used to explore our urge to make sense of what has happened in our lives, to post-rationalize events, to think we have been in control. This urge might be self-deceiving, but was also very strong: “normal life was what I was trying to preserve for myself. Through all these memorable events … – it is all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to restore and maintain my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I’ve crossed. I know it’s only me that makes those connections. But to try not to make them is to commit yourself to the waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair…..

The group then started debating how realistic it was that Dell would have sought so little contact with his twin in later life, or that his father would have made no effort to contact his children after coming out of prison. And should Reminger not have killed Dell too as the witness? Hold on, these were not real people and you had to give the author some artistic leeway…..

Basta! Yours truly put the top on the pen, pushed the now mysteriously empty bottle of red under the table, and lurched out into the murky November evening. Up ahead I could see yellow lights still shining in the windows of Bennets. Yes! I upped my pace, to a dactylic gallop….