For 30 years Richard Ford has been sewing novels with ephemeral, fleeting prose, airy and drifting, loose but not sloppy, dreamy but not soporific. His style feels so rootless and transient it continually draws comparisons to other writers who otherwise have very little in common: the empathetic skewering of suburban stagnation ala Updike; the meditative, nostalgia-purged recollection of William Maxwell; the self-vivisection-via-pop-culture of Walker Percy. It’s probably innate that readers find other writers embedded in Ford’s novels as his prose is a perpetual permeation of the minute, the barely discernible. He piles layers of questions on layers of questions but never really elucidates; he illuminates, he ruminates, but he doesn’t offer answers.
In his Pulitzer-winning Independence Day, the middle entry in his Frank Bascombe Trilogy, a down and depressed real estate agent trying to sell a home situated in the shadow of an insane asylum is portrayed as just another sliver of life’ daily banality, our protagonist (though certainly not a hero; there are no heroes or villains in Ford’s works) stuck in a Sisyphean slipstream, always swimming against a Kierkegaardian current. The novel is maybe the best representation of Ford’s singular style, still suffused with the bristling, buzzing energy of its predecessor, The Sportswriter, but with the static stoicism of middle age starting to set in, life starting to settle into a sad redundancy.
The final entry in the trilogy, The Lay of the Land, veers even further into detachment, a Steinbeck-like pastoral purgatory. Ford writes with a slow, constant crescendo, never vibrant but never dull, picturesque but compromised, the American Dream as a stalled car on the side of a vast Jersey highway, unaffected drivers passing by, undeterred.
To say nothing happens in a Ford novel is unfair but not wholly untrue. There’s little kinetic action—there are murders and bank robberies and battle with cancer but there are no gun fights, car chases, the fermata fervor of a heart monitor flat lining and the thin green scrawl cutting the screen in half. Ford’s magic lies in the meditations of his characters—minutiae as magnanimity. Here, in Independence Day, Bascombe ponders existence in that dry, sort of inconsequential way Ford’s characters often do:
Unmarried men in their forties, if we don’t subside entirely into the landscape, often lose important credibility and can even attract unwholesome attention in a small, conservative community. And in Haddam, in my new circumstances, I felt I was perhaps becoming the personage I least wanted to be and, in the years since my divorce, had feared being: the suspicious bachelor, the man whose life has no mystery, the graying, slightly jowly, slightly too tanned and trim middle-ager, driving around town in a cheesy ’58 Chevy ragtop polished to a squeak, always alone on balmy summer nights, wearing a faded yellow polo shirt and green suntans, elbow over the window top, listening to progressive jazz, while smiling and pretending to have everything under control, when in fact there was nothing to control.
Ford writes the way Robert Altman directs: meandering, wavering, opaque and loose but not unfocused or ADHD-hyper, long sentences like long takes zooming in and pulling back and fluttering like passing daydreams. Altman loved capturing his characters in reflective surfaces—the surplus or mirrors in Thieves Like Us, a film that could have been adapted from a novel Ford never wrote, or windows and gleaming bodies of water in 3 Women; Ford lets his characters dissolve in their own distracted musings and discuss themselves in their descriptions of the material world—the Chevy, the jazz, the yellow polo shirt. They’re reflected in capitalism’s corporeality.
Canada, his first novel since finishing the Bascombe Trilogy in 2006, is his most impermanent work yet. Like William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Ford’s novel is the collated memories of a single narrator trying to make sense of the past. Our narrator, Dell Parsons, recites his tale softly, without big pervasive words or jarring exclamations; he’s delicate, like a gentle breeze blowing over the dusty Montana plains. He’s trying to convince us— and maybe himself—that his memories are truthful.
Dell’s father, a former Air Force Pilot, uneducated but suave and smart, well-liked and handsome though less self-aware than he thinks, conspires to rob a bank after a black market deal involving the illegal sale of beef goes sour. Dell’s mother, the daughter of emigrated Jews (she’s described as being vividly foreign looking, a sore thumb in the sea of white farmers), doesn’t like the plan, but she goes along because… well, that’s ambiguous. Dell speculates and ponders, poses questions he tries to answer, but nothing definitive ever converges. “It’s a mystery how we are. A mystery,” he tells us.
Canada is largely devoid of dialogue and quotes for the first 100 pages. Instead, Ford weaves rhythmic, light lines of almost inconsequential brevity; you can skip paragraphs, pages, maybe even whole chapters and you won’t be lost or adrift. Of course you won’t get the full beauty of the novel, but there’s not enough proverbial plot to miss. We’re told right up front that Dell’s parents robbed a bank and that they were the least likely people to ever rob a bank. Why did they rob this bank? The words “rob” and “bank” are peppered about in every chapter, as if motifs in a patient’s dream a psychiatrist is trying, and failing, to decipher.
When action does unfurl, Dell focuses on the subtle details, often missing the bigger picture—he’s so close to the subjects of his story he can’t pull back and see things objectively. For all his musings and ponderings, Dell teaches us very little about the “story”; rather, he ends up offering unintentional meditations on life, on ontology, on the nature of humanity. That he doesn’t even realize the inadvertent depth of his own observations reflects the aleatory quality of Ford’s novel:
What they did was drive east on Highway 200, through the towns of Lewistown and Winnett, into the Musselshell drainage toward Jordon, Circle and Sidney, through the summer-hard, dry-grass table-land that stretches from the mountains to Minnesota. They were where they knew no one and nothing, other than what my father had discovered on his “business trip,” which probably seemed like a great deal in his mind, and helped create the sensation they were invisible… No one talked to him or seemed to pay attention to his jumpsuit. (There was an airbase in Minot, not far away.) This made him believe people would be stunned into memoryless-ness if, dressed in that way, he walked into the bank the second it opened, brandished his .45, took what was in the tellers’ drawers and whatever other money was lying around loose—made no effort to go into the vault, unless it happened to be standing open with money in view, and he could steal it easily—out it all in his canvas bag and be gone.
The beauty and weight of Canada rests in Ford’s style, but he isn’t a stylist: unlike Michael Chabon or Nicolson Baker or any other modern wordsmiths whose legacy rests upon his ability to dexterously craft lush entwinements of pretty prose, Ford seems almost effortless—a cliché, of course, but it’s not an untrue assertion. It’s as if Ford took the pages of his manuscript and threw them up into the air, letting the wind grab them, carrying them off, shuffle them, the flurry of white pages like a flotilla of doves hanging from invisible threads in the bright blue sky.
Dell, who is now a 60-year-old school teacher, reaches back into the catacombs of his memory palace to tell his story. We don’t know what we can or can’t believe because he doesn’t know himself; we go on faith, as he does. We have to trust him, even though he admits he doesn’t trust the papers and periodicals that covered the story of his parents’ ill-fated bank robbery.
Dell’s story—Ford’s novel— is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and how we patch the gaps and chasms unwittingly, unknowingly, unconsciously with fact, with fiction, with little bits and remnants of our mind’s myriad of lifetime musings and how memory is an amalgamation, a concoction, fictile and momentary, more like Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle than Hemingway’s anything. It recalls other artists—writers, filmmakers, painters—because it channels the same ethereality, the same lack of corporeality. Ford’s novel, ostensibly plotless and static, ponders the inarticulate bits of life.