Books come and go. Some remain more vividly as events than as words. Looking for a copy of The Stranger to illustrate this point, I discovered I no longer have one, and possibly haven’t had a copy for years. Yet when I was 18, Albert Camus slapped my adolescent face in such a shocking and revelatory way that I still remember, exactly, the moment I finished it. I sat there for a long time, wondering what the point of anything was. And whether anything I could read would ever speak to me that way again.
Thirty years on, it’s not shock I’m after, more an understanding of the toll ordinary life can take. How tough life can be when nothing about its exterior, its public manifestations or the things people see and feel able to assume gives anyone any indication that it might be so hard. The small heroism of faking it. The shy, domestic bravery of simply being. And going on anyway, despite the knowledge that what accrues from being may not amount to much, or even last.
Richard Ford’s great character, Frank Bascombe, is a vivid and beautiful manifestation of this. I miss him. His wrought survival. His battered optimism. When I finished The Lay of the Land, the final book in Ford’s Bascombe trilogy (with its penultimate paragraph ending: “Here is necessity. Here is the extra beat – to live, to live, to live it out”), I felt a loss akin to seeing a friend move somewhere distant overseas. You promise to keep in touch. And you mean it. But, really, how can you?
Then Canada arrived, six years on. Ford’s great new novel, justly acclaimed as a masterpiece by John Banville. Frank Bascombe has gone, of course, but what the Japanese call mono no aware is still there: a pathos, as if someone who cares about you is watching but is unable to intervene. And Ford’s core themes survive: the struggle to fill life when it’s “passed on to us empty”, and how to live with the knowledge that the hope and effort and longing we thought would be enough to mark us out, to lift us up and define us as worthy of luck, will somehow go “unrewarded”. Why? What then? And how do we go on?
In Canada, the children, a twin brother and sister, one luckier than the other, go to visit their mother and father in jail. It is a scene of such precise elegiac power that to quote it in part does it a disservice. Except for the importance of one word. “Our father”, as he’s described, takes stock of his children, mute, taking stock of him, and shakes his head. “I didn’t hold my end up very well. I hope this isn’t anything that seems ordinary to you two.”
“Ordinary.” What a word to use in such circumstances. But being ordinary, understanding what it is and maintaining some persuasive semblance of it, finding it among “the unequal things”, are what Ford’s central characters search his pages for. The shocks and losses that sometimes assail them are not the larger point; it’s what comes next that matters. Canada starts with the promise of a robbery and “the murders”. Both are mentioned in the book’s first 13 words, but they are there to serve what follows: to create the weight and source of the life beyond them.
I’m always interested in how people would look if you just were driving past and saw them through a window. This little family, sitting around a table. A man, a woman and two children. They would look fairly satisfied. But it’s the meticulous look that any book affords you that causes you to see things in a more grainy way.”
Richard Ford is in a hotel room in Sydney. His voice, which people who interview him often comment on, is as warm as a childhood summer. Although it is a full media day and I am interview-number-however-many, he is generous company. I have met him before and I like him, a great deal. We talk about going on. How some people manage it better than others. Canada’s twins, aged 15, are both hit by the same pivotal whack, their parents unsuccessfully robbing a bank, but Dell does better than Berner at finding his way beyond the damage of that event to somewhere else and somewhere better.
Did he intend, from the outset, for the difference to be so pronounced? “You know, I can’t quite remember. I knew what the ending would be. But I make a lot of plans for books. Some work out and some don’t. What happens is, plan or no plan, it all gets consummated in the book. The plans become the thing and then go away. They’re erased by what they become, and then sometimes I can’t recall my intentions. I don’t much write my plans down.”
So how does he know where he’s going? “Well, I have spatial plans. In other words, I’ve got sort of way stations plotted out. But how I get from way station to way station is often a matter of fortuity.” Does fortuity ever let him down? Does it ever not take him to the next way station? “No!” Laughter. “It’s my nature to have a forced march there, no matter what. And then sometimes, once I get there, I realise I didn’t really need to go there, and then I can take it out. But if I have a notion my characters will go to some place, I jolly well make them go.”
A forced march. Dell in Canada, Frank Bascombe in his epic trilogy (over 1200 pages in all), young Joe in Wildlife; each of them forging through their circumstance, and up, and on. There are resonances of Saul Bellow. But where Bellow had Henderson saying “I want, I want, I want”, Ford’s great central characters simply must. “We all try. You try. I try. We all do. What else is there?”
That’s Berner to Dell, in Canada. Decades have passed since they visited their father in jail. One twin is dying and the other is not. Two people, whose lives were joined and then diverged so vastly. Same womb, same childhood, same fall – different landing.
Early in Canada, Dell describes his mother. Before her marriage to Dell’s father “betokened a loss”, she aspired to something. “She wore frameless glasses, read French poetry, often used terms like ‘cauchemar’ or ‘trou de cul’ … featured herself possibly as a bohemian and a poet, and had hoped someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from whom she did marry …”
This is superb writing. Regret but not rancour. (“We all try.”) And in the elaboration that follows comes a distillation of much of what can be found at the heart of Ford’s work. Dell tells us his mother and father should not have married, but that they remained together despite “their mistake”. And the longer they stayed married, “the more misguided their lives became – like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense”.
Sense. And how to find it in “life’s hurtling passage onwards”. The things that shape us, and how we live with that shape. Four hundred and nine pages after the passage above, we are told the “consequences ran far but never outran their source”. Dell’s twin sister, his mother, his father, the way their lives were affected so heavily by that unchecked departure from sense, which compounded, like interest owed to someone sinister, the cost itself, becoming greater than the original debt. The weight, Ford tells us, “was the weight of consequence”. And as Dell measures it, having somehow done better than the other three, having almost attained ordinary, he stops and turns to us, beyond self-pity, or any sense of tragedy or even regret, his life laid out on the pages now coming to an end, and addresses us directly: “There’s little else to say.” And then, two pages later: “Hidden meaning is all but absent.”
We have been here before. Near the end of Independence Day, the second novel in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, Frank tells us: “And that is simply it.” And in The Sportswriter, where the Bascombe story begins, Frank turns to us at the beginning of the book’s final passages and says: “Finally, what is left to say? It is not a very complicated business, I don’t think.”
Ford’s central characters rise through the turmoil, clutter and the blind effrontery of life – to reach sense, to find ordinary, to understand that life itself is the hidden meaning – and even survive. “Human beings deserve a closer look, human beings reward a closer look,” he says. “And these people are not human beings, they’re pieces of artifice, so we needn’t feel sorry for them if their lives aren’t as good as ours, or as good as we want them to be, because they don’t really have lives. The thing is, they’re instrumentations by which a book forces you to look first at itself, and then away from itself, toward the rest of life.”
On the phone from Sydney, the author, 68, talking to me at my office desk, is “happy”, he tells me, and I believe he is. He is certainly happy to be a writer. “You have to do things on the page that make you happy. And that make you pleased. And make you cry. And make you shout out laughing sometimes. Other wise the job would be inexorable. The job would be a confinement rather than a vocation. I mean, I grew up wanting to do something useful, wanting to turn my life to the service of something better than just myself.
“And writing books has, over the course of the whole of it, seemed to lead me in that direction. You know, when my book made the best-seller list, the first thing I thought – no, the only thing I thought – was that I’d found new readers and that hopefully this was a book worthy of their attention, and maybe people could use it to good ends.”
It’s getting late. The Campbell Live office is silent, which is unusual. The Sports Tonight team are talking rugby or cricket, just out of sensible earshot. The cleaner is wearing earphones. He is listening to something spoken. In Sydney, Richard Ford is off to talk to the ABC. And in Canada, Dell, who does not even exist and is only a piece of artifice, realises he has somehow survived. He looks forward. The way stations. Planning. Finding sense.
“I would try to mediate among the good counsels I’d been given: generosity, longevity, acceptance, relinquishment, letting the world come to me – and, with these things, to make a life.”
CANADA, by Richard Ford (Bloomsbury, $36.99).
John Campbell is judges’ convenor for the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.