Audiobook Classics: Canada by Richard Ford
About Richard Ford (from WikiPedia)
"Richard Ford (born February 16, 1944) is an American novelist and short story writer. His best-known works are the novelThe Sportswriter and its sequels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, and the short story collection Rock Springs, which contains several widely anthologized stories."
According to the academics: "Ford's works of fiction "dramatize the breakdown of such cultural institutions as marriage, family, and community", and his "marginalized protagonists often typify the rootlessness and nameless longing ... pervasive in a highly mobile, present-oriented society in which individuals, having lost a sense of the past, relentlessly pursue their own elusive identities in the here and now." Ford "looks to art, rather than religion, to provide consolation and redemption in a chaotic time"."
Not Exactly a Page-Turner...
I sat down at the computer today ready to slam Richard Ford's Canada, like many of the critics have, as a lazy, bloated effort that illustrates the idea that one's greatest strengths are also one's greatest weaknesses: Ford's ability to capture life's inner battles and the inner dialogue that we have with ourselves has made him one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers, and in Canada he's created a protagonist that, like Ralph Bascombe of the Independence Day trilogy, is a world-class ponderer. But Ford lets Dell Parson’s pondering become embarrassingly repetitive, as if he won't feel he can put an idea or a topic to rest until he's looked at it from every possible angle. The narrative becomes unbalanced as a result, and the awesome power of the stark and beautiful setting Ford is so good at creating gets buried in Dell's thoughts about it all.
Even so, Canada is powerfully haunting, so much so that my initial slamming reaction has been tempered by my own pondering. As with any great character study, it isn't until we've put the book down that we start to see how things fit together, and we realize that perhaps we made the mistake of taking the protagonist and narrator, Dell Parsons, at face value. We may realize that despite Dell Parson's own belief that his life is somehow a lesson in virtue, a portrait in courage, a picture of plucky survival and tenacious teeth-grinding on the high plains, after we've had time to do some pondering of our own we may realize that Dell Parsons is a coward of the highest order, and that all along, though her story is untold, his twin sister Berner has been the courageous one, the Carpe Diem kid.
Having had this epiphany midway through capturing my initial thoughts Canada, I'm not about to completely abandon my original position. It is a profoundly cerebral book; the kind of novel you can pick up and put down over the course of six months and thoroughly enjoy however many chapters you might have time for, then forget about it until you need to have a dose of literary barbituates to help you get some sleep. I think many readers can agree that it's no page turner.
Ford fans can also agree that, whether his stories are set in the suburbs of New Jersey or the trailer parks of the Rocky Mountain west, he is the master at creating an evocative sense of place with powerful imagery full of significant detail, populating it with unforgettable characters and putting it all in motion across multiple plot lines. His novels can move from action-packed violence on one extreme to long, challenging meditations on the other, which together tend to speak to the full spectrum of human experience and almost always ask more questions than they answer.
Richard Ford & Progeny
Bank Robbers! Murders! Bait My Hook, Prof. Ford!
While Canada has many of these signature characteristics, I was frustrated and disappointed for the simple reason that it lacks any remote element of surprise. Ford tells us in advance what is going to happen, then goes on to tell us how it happened. In telling how these events came about, Ford often leads us into pool of expository quicksand so that when he finally pulls us out we are so relieved that we keep reading, even though the quicksand hasn’t even had a chance to dry.
The novel begins in what becomes the characteristically blunt, factual voice of the narrator, 66-year old English teacher Dell Parsons.
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” (p.1)
About a hundred pages later, the robbery happens. The murders happen about two hundred and seventy five pages after that. That's not to say that everything in between is filler, but the way the narrator sets us up suggests a potentially brisk pace that never materializes.
In the second paragraph we learn: “Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank.” (p. 1) And the next 30 pages are given to exposition - telling, not showing - describing the history “doomed” family until July 1960, at which point our narrator and his twin are 15 years old, they live in Great Falls, Montana (a favorite Ford setting), and their father Bev is involved in a nefarious cattle rustling scam with some Cree Indians. It’s also at some point in this long introductory exposition (I put the book down midway through it and didn’t pick it up again for months), we learn that Neva Parsons, their mother, commits suicide in prison at a later date. Thus, we know that the robbery was unsuccessful about 70 pages before it happens.
A Narration as Flat & Dry as Southern Sasketchewan
It must be tough to narrate a novel like Canada. The story and the fashion in which it is told, by a reminiscing 65-year old English teacher, is as dry and flat as the landscape in which the bulk of the story is set: the treeless grasslands of southern Sasketchewan. To be true to the protagonist and his rather bland, emotionless demeanor, the delivery requires a certain plaintive, analytical tone. Holter Graham nails Dell Parsons beautifully: his detached pondering manner, his longing for the family that he once had, his anger with the buffoonery of his father - all of it simmering deep below the surface of Dell's outward "beekeeper" personality.
This from WikiPedia:
Holter Ford Graham (born February 11, 1972) is an American actor and voice-over narrator from Baltimore, Maryland. He appeared in his first film, Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, at age thirteen. He is best known for his film work in the original John Waters’s Hairspray; the Oscar-nominated Fly Away Home; Six Ways to Sunday; Spin the Bottle; and Offspring, as well as his television work on Damages; Rescue Me; Law & Order; Army Wives; and New York Undercover. From 2008 – 2010, Graham was the co-host of Planet Green’s groundbreaking environmental program, Wasted. Since 2000, he has been the voice of HBO, and has narrated over 150 audio books, winning dozens of awards for his work.
I could go on describing the numerous instances of “foreshadowing” (in quotes because the descriptions are hardly “shadows”, rather they are statements of fact about the future) throughout the novel. I found it bothersome, so I continually had to remind myself that this story is being told by a 66 year-old man, and not a 15 year-old boy, and that the real plot is about a guy trying to make sense of the watershed events of his youth that have made him the man he now is. Still, there are times when it’s unclear if it’s the young or the old Dell Parsons that’s telling the story. Then there are some statements that are brain twisters regardless of their POV:
“The longer I delay characterizing my father as a born criminal, the more accurate this story will be.” (p. 70)
I think this implies that Dell Parsons will eventually believe and thus portray his father, Bev Parsons, as a “born criminal”, though it will take some time for him to come to this conclusion. This is followed by something it seems an editor should have caught.
“He became one, it’s true.” (P. 70)
I don’t know how someone “becomes” a “born” criminal, unless it’s strictly in the mind of the narrator, who at some point realizes that his father is “born” to rob banks. This whole chapter of the novel continues with this circuitous logic.
“But I’m not sure at what point in the chain of events he or anyone or the world would’ve known it. Intention to be a criminal must weigh in these things.”
Here I’m wondering why Dell Parsons doesn’t recognize that his father was already involved in illegal activities with the cattle rustling scam, and that making the leap to bank robber was just a natural point in his trajectory. Yet he says:
“And a case can be made that he never had clear intention before he robbed the Agricultural National Bank in Creekmore, North Dakota. Possibly he lacked the intention even immediately afterward - and didn’t have it until it dawned on him what might happen to him as a result...And since, again, he didn’t consider himself the type of person to commit an armed robbery, actually committing one didn’t immediately change his opinion of himself...This may be how many criminals who’re new to their work think about their actions and themselves.”
This passage is a good example of the mental gymnastics that make Canada so difficult to enjoy. There is too much psychoanalysis and hypothesizing about “criminal intent” and other such other neurotic behaviors that are “thought about” by the narrator, rather than demonstrated by the actions of the characters (though there is some demonstration...just not enough.)
It's possible to see how this might have been Ford's intention: to create an environment, both in Great Falls and in Saskatchewan, that, like Dell and Berner's parents, are completely void of any nurturing characteristics or outside stimulation whatsoever. Ford is famous for such backdrops, even to the point where a certain misogynous flavor that lacks any notion of female tenderness is almost expected in his work. Dell's sister, Berner, behaves with the strength and confidence that we ultimately wish Dell had, that is, if he wasn't the lily-livered wimp tied to a parked car that he is throughout the whole novel (though like I said we may not be aware of it until the end.)
If Ford's intention is to pay the Canadian culture and emotional detachment of the people some kind of compliment, it is a weak one, indeed. the more I think about it the angrier I get. Maybe Canada is Richard Ford's best effort yet.