Sunday, September 21, 2008

'The Lay of the Land' by Richard Ford

My friend the Montreal writer David Hamburg once had the privilege of having dinner with John Irving. Over the course of conversation David mentioned that when he started reading a novel he always had to finish it come hell or high water, even if he was hating it. Irving reponded that that was moronic (I paraphrase). He operated on a 20 page rule (I think it was 20, though it may have been 40, it was surely less than 50), meaning the number of pages he gave a book before he dumped it if he hadn't been completely captivated. Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to waste your time on something you don't like, was his explanation. I tend to agree. However, until a couple of years ago I was, like David, a masochist must-finish reader (or in a more positive light an eternal-optimist reader.) I was also a one-book-at-a-time reader. Nowadays I have at least two or three novels going at the same time. So how to explain the fact that I stuck with Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land' for over a year? It was a novel that I had started last summer, read half, put it down over the winter and then picked it up again to finish this summer. We're not talking about a 1000-pager like 'Infinite Jest' (my traditional limit for a novel is 350 pages max). The novel is a dozen or so pages shy of 500, though it reads like 1000. Yes, I am a slow reader, but this is a slow-reading book, and I mean this in the best possible sense. I followed the Irving rule and within the first ten pages I was enthralled: every sentence, every paragraph and page is so carefully crafted, so rich in detail and sharply-worded that to be properly appreciated (like a gourmet meal accompanied by a vintage wine) it requires time for savouring and proper digestion. When I returned to the novel after an eight month hiatus it was as if I'd never put it down. The main character, ex-writer and now-realtor Frank Bascombe had entered my bloodstream and was still circulating through my body. Picking the novel up again was like bumping into a friend, not an 'old' friend, but someone I'd met last summer (in a bar, if I went to bars, or on vacation down south) and who'd left an enduring impression. There was an attachment, as if we'd become memorably and intimately acquainted in a short span of time before regretfully having to go our separate ways. On my second go with Frank this summer, the moment I turned the last page of the novel and shut the cover I instantly felt a vacancy. So maybe I took so long to read it because I wanted to make it last as long as possible.

The term that keeps repeating itself in my mind to describe the achievement of this novel is 'monument'. It marks a life lived; Frank is facing his own mortality having been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But it also memorializes (and solemnizes to a certain extent) a particular time-period and landscape, namely, millennial America during the weeks of suspended animation ("suspended aggravation") between the 2000 Presidential election and the US Supreme Court decision to award George Bush Florida's Electoral College votes that handed him the Presidency. The setting is the New Jersey Shore where Frank works as a realtor and the novel takes places over a few days leading up to the American Thanksgiving holiday. Frank is bringing the remnants of his shattered family together (for a holiday dinner catered by Eat No Evil), daughter Clarissa who is back with a man after a stint of lesbianism, and no-goodnik son Paul who works for Hallmark in Kansas City, and is shlepping with him a timecapsule to bury in the sand. Frank's also dealing with the fact that his second wife, who has brought him as close as he's likely to be to true happiness, has recently run off to England to be with her first husband who suddenly showed up after being presumed dead for two decades. And there is the everpresent memory of his deceased son Ralph - the most moving passages in the novel deal with Frank still trying to come to terms with this loss.
Ford's greatest quality as a writer, one that puts him in the category of the very best, like Updike and Bellow, is the way he turns his protagonists into emblems of their time and place (think Rabbit Angstrom or Moses Herzog). And though Updike and Bellow were two of the great figures of 20th century American fiction, Ford's distinction is that his creation is undeniably a transitional figure to the 21st century, making the author perhaps the first great American novelist of the new century, and TLOTL perhaps its first classic. It is a quintessentially American novel, and unCanadian, in the way that the mundane is utterly inseparable from the grandiose. The 'important' themes of death, sacrifice, memory, love, and loss that are at the core of Frank's story (indeed, the human journey) are not trumpeted front and center as they tend to be in Canadian novels. Rather they are woven in seamlessly into Frank's quotidian concerns, his business dealings, his friendships and family relationships. Frank is, in so many respects an American everyman and what makes him such a genuine and charming host is that he's experienced too much and for too long to take himself seriously. Yet, the underlying seriousness of Ford's narrative is never in doubt. As the filter through which we experience millennial (and get a foretaste of post-millenial) America, Frank is the ideal guide to the 'state of the disunion' as he takes us along for a drive up and down the New Jersey shore, with a copy of Shore Buyer's Guide rolled up next to us on the front seat. There are stops to witness a hotel demolition (complete with grandstands and souvenir sellers), and to have a few drinks in an after-hours lesbian bar among others, on Thanksgiving eve. There will be dissertations written about this novel, but suffice to say that it is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny, head-shakingly witty and heartbreakingly wise. As unforgettable as Frank is. And if this is your first Ford novel, as it was mine, you will likely be as impatient as I am to dig into the first two installments of this trilogy.

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