September 17, 2013

Book Review: "Canada" by Richard Ford

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Canada
By Richard Ford
Ecco
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

There's a story about Richard Ford that goes like this. He publishes a book of short stories called A Multitude of Sins. Like all of Ford's work, it's almost universally praised. But it's not his strongest book, and that causes a few critics to jump at the opportunity to take the Great American Novelist down a peg or two--perhaps the most prominent of these critics being Colson Whitehead, the author of Sag Harbor and Zone One. Writing about the book in the New York Times Book Review, Whitehead coined the acronyms A.P.S.D. (Awkward Pang of Simmering Dissatisfaction) and A.P.M.E. (Awkward Pang of Muted Epiphany). Really, the Whitehead review is the kind of takedown piece that's almost a compliment, since it's obvious that Whitehead had put a lot of thought into Multitude and the rest of Ford's work. It's also a funny review, and even the reader who is a huge fan of Ford's work would have to agree with some of Whitehead's points. Ford does like to use the word "something," for example, and the yearnings of his characters are often vague. Long story short though, Ford himself was not amused by the review. Two years later, he confronts Whitehead at a Poets & Writers party in New York City. "I've waited two years for this," Ford says. "You're a kid." At which point he actually spits in Whitehead's face.

My reason for the spit anecdote is to illustrate the kind of author Richard Ford is--let's say, kindly, that he's a writer of a bygone age. In my opinion he's also the most elegant prose stylist working today--he has a way of embedding big ideas into a novel, expressing the kind of hard won knowledge that it takes a lifetime to acquire in a single, impeccable sentence, which is so perfectly placed within the story or novel that it makes it seem like the whole thing, literally years and years of work, was undertaken to hold that one sentence. This obsessive attention to expression is the reason that reading Canada or another of Ford's books can make his work feel like the perfect antidote to the kind of modern novel that's clean, carefully inoffensive, entertaining, somewhat cliched and widely accessible--think Jonathan Evison, Jonathan Tropper, Ben Fountain or Michael Chabon. It's impossible to imagine an author as eager to please (and as accessible to his droves of Facebook "friends") as Evison spitting on another writer. And the thing is (not to be too hard on Evison) I don't think the fact of the spitting makes Ford a worse person than Evison. I think Ford's work, the fact that he doesn't care about pleasing anyone, doesn't care about not offending or entertaining or being accessible, but instead is laser focused on the clear transmission of knowledge and ideas from author to reader, makes Ford a good person, spitting or no spitting. Moreover, Ford's work acts as a powerful argument that there are more important things than being a "good person" in the mold of this current generation of novelists who are inoffensive and blandly energetic, and at least as focused on propping each other up on social media as they are on sentence construction. I think Ford's level of dedication affords him the right to defend his work.

But on to Canada. The book has been out for a year, and many reviews of it have been written. I would recommend in particular Ron Charles' writing in the Washington Post, but the fact is that every review says that same thing, and every review is right. The novel's plot is summed up pretty well by the oft-quoted first sentence. "First I'll tell you about the robbery my parents committed, and then about the murders, which happened later." Canada is the story of Dell Parsons, who is fifteen when his parents rob the bank, then flees to Canada to escape foster care, where he falls under the care of an American named Arthur Remlinger, whom he sees murder two people. But the plot isn't the point. The writing here wants you to slow down in just the same way that almost every other modern novel wants you to speed up. It can be a bit jarring. Canada can feel like it drags in places (and for those who haven't read any Richard Ford, I would recommend starting with The Sportswriter, but at Ford's pace of one novel every ten years or so, sooner or later you'll run out and have to read this one).

I wanted to share a bit about my personal experience with this novel. I had been reading it all afternoon, and I happened to be finishing it just when my wife arrived home. Rather than stopping to pick it up later, I read the last page aloud to her. It was so beautiful that I choked up, and I thought printing it here might give readers an idea as to Ford's style, as well as a point of entry for this novel. Quote below the break:

--

Some days I drive through the tunnel into Detroit--the city that used to be there, now only acres of vacant lots, with the great glistening buildings along the riverside, like false fronts, a good brave face to our world on the other side. I drive up Jefferson along the river and eventually out into the exurbia toward Thumb and Port Huron. I always think I'll drive north to Oscoda, where I was born, see what it is today, the remnants of the air base--of which I would remember nothing. But when I see the great welcoming Blue Water arch, eight hundred and seventy feet back across to Sarnia, I lose my need, as though I was trying to possess something I never had. 'You should go sometime,' my wife says to me. 'It'd be interesting. It would help you, put things to rest.' As if I hadn't don that.

Of course, it's not lost to me that I live across a border from the place near my birth, and from the place where Arthur Remlinger's devilment started, and from where the two Americans departed on the way to meet their fates. In a sense, its significance weighs on me, and I've often thought that where I live here, now--in the screwy way of things--was meant to be, and that the weight was the weight of consequence. As if I expected to preside over both sides of something. But I simply don't believe in those ideas. I believe in what you see being most of what there is, as I've taught my students, and that life's passed along to us empty. So, while significance lays heavy, that's the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.

My mother said I'd have thousands of mornings to wake up and think about all this, when no one would tell me how to feel. It's been many thousands now. What I know is, you have a better chance in life--of surviving it--if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly the good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.

--

And there you have it.

Out of 10: 10

Read even more about Canada: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 12:42 AM, September 17, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |