Richard Ford: Canada

This is an extraordinary book. It sets out, in detail, the life of a boy growing toward manhood, following an inept robbery of a bank by his parents. The key to the boy, Dell’s, success in overcoming all the setbacks that followed this event is slowly disclosed, and is given its final form only at the end of the novel, when Dell, now a teacher, tells his students that “I believe in what you see being most of what there is… and that life’s passed on to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.” That’s not the way I personally look at life, but it’s a mark of Ford’s greatness as a writer that he convinced me that it is a valid philosophy for him, although not for me, valid in that it allows Dell to rebuild his life and survive. Survive rather well, in fact.
Along the way we meet characters who are remarkably well described. Even if we don’t really understand them, they are very real to us. Arthur Reminger, accidental murderer and revolutionary, is an unlikely character to find in a small town in Saskatchewan. Reminger’s woman friend, Florence, is a welcome arrival on the scene, a counter to the unbalanced Reminger. Charley, the weird general help: it’s hard to tell how accurate, or even believable, his tales about Reminger Ford intends them to be. And there’s a host of minor characters who appear briefly, but whose identity is sketched in faultlessly.
It isn’t just the characters that are written about so well. The descriptions of Great Falls, of Dell’s home there, of the state prison, of the drive into Canada, and, above all, of Fort Royal, are done so well. Canada is a remarkable country, so diverse, the great cities, although we don’t see them in this book, attractive and interesting, but there is the other side to Canada, the rural decay. You drive through Canada, and you keep coming across awful places like Fort Royal and Partreau, desperate in decay. But these places are set in the most beautiful scenery in the world. There are two ways of looking at the prairies: one is the way some people think about East Anglia. Very flat, Cambridge, they say. Nothing there. Others look at the huge skies, the clouds sailing towards the north-east, and say that on a good day you can see forever, they see the hidden meaning. Ford sees Canada, and life, in the first way, it is a valid view, written about convincingly, but it isn’t mine. It’s no surprise that Ford’s best friend is Raymond Carver.
The story of his run-in with Alice Hoffman, who reviewed an earlier novel, the Sport’s Writer, in the New York Times, is well-known. What Hoffman wrote is (and this is a quote):
“Though ”The Sportswriter” aims for a tough, realistic stance it suffers from a lack of compelling action and an emphasis on Bascombe’s dry meditations obscures and minimizes the complex domestic structure the author initially presents. MR. FORD is a daring and intelligent novelist, but in choosing Bascombe as his narrator he has taken a risk that ultimately does not pay off. The authorial voice is so weakened that we are left only with the observations of an emotionally untrustworthy narrator. This is not to say that the author doesn’t allow us some access to Bascombe’s psyche. Certainly, his observations about a former athlete hold true for himself, for what he needs ”is to strap on a set of pads and beat the daylights out of somebody and quit worrying about theories of art.” He never trades theorizing for action. Bascombe’s inability to write fiction, which should illuminate his inability to connect emotionally, instead seems trivial. Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis, so that Bascombe’s lost son seems less a ghostly presence than a tiny piece of glass set in the kaleidoscope of self-scrutiny.”
Exactly the same criticism can be made of Canada, and, probably, of all Ford’s books, although I’ve only read two others, The Sportswriter and Independence Day.
In retaliation for her criticism, Ford shot a hole through her latest book (Fortune’s Daughter) and posted it to her. “Well my wife shot it first,” said Ford, rather proudly. “She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it – shooting a book – it’s not like I shot her.”
Canada is a fine example of a book that is outstandingly well written, and you have to admire it, but in the end, it is a portrayal of a view of life that is sterile and unsatisfying. It’s a book I would give 10 to for literary merit, and not recommend to many people as a good read. And that shoots a hole through what we think we’re doing when we decide “Is this a good book?” Or “Should this book win a prize?”.

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