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The Ongoing Promise

Kevin Stevens

Richard Ford’s fiction, John Banville has said, “is as revolutionary as Proust’s adventures in time travel”. Hermione Lee has deemed his latest work, The Lay of the Land, to be “his Ulysses”. Appointed last April as adjunct professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, Ford will be visiting Ireland regularly over the coming years to provide guidance for students at the college’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing. In this interview, conducted in July, he speaks at length about the Frank Bascombe novels and his short fiction, about what he calls the “ongoing promise” of the writer’s imagination revealed in story, and about art and politics in contemporary America.

 

Near the beginning of Richard Ford’s latest novel, The Lay of the Land, its narrator, Frank Bascombe, is driving along the New Jersey coastal incline from his current home in Sea-Clift to his old neighbourhood of Haddam “for a day of diverse duties”. All involved are on familiar ground: Ford has given Frank a history that includes three decades in this part of the world; Ford’s readers – or at least those who have also read The Sportswriter and Independence Day – are joining his ruminative everyman on a third journey through suburban America.

 As he drives, Frank muses:

 What is home then, you might wonder? The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just can’t keep from going back to, though the air there’s grown less breathable, the future’s over, where they really don’t want you back, and where you once left on a breeze without a rearward glance?

 

Two things about this passage draw our attention at once: the voice – lyrical, informal, intriguing – and the sentiment.

 

First the sentiment. The question of where one belongs, physically and culturally, is one which Ford has been posing in one form or another for as long as he’s been writing. And it is a familiar theme to readers of American fiction. It is noteworthy that, between the first and second Bascombe novels, Ford had Frank drop sportswriting as a career and became a real estate agent (just as Ford left sportswriting for fiction). Real estate is a central image in Ford’s work, an imaginative channel into the great American themes of isolation and independence that he shapes very carefully, weaving the details of place into the professional and private lives of his characters with consummate verisimilitude, so that the symbolic force of home and landscape, location and dislocation, arises naturally from the narrative.

 

However, when I asked Ford in a recent interview if his use of setting helped him explore what it means to be an American at this point in history, he presented a more pragmatic viewpoint:

 

In these three New Jersey novels, I’ve caused Frank Bascombe, my principal character and narrator, to turn his attention to New Jersey as a subject. I’ve done this, however, for what seems to me to be a perfectly practical reason – not a romantic one, and not to explore being American: I simply wanted Frank to be able to speak affirmingly about New Jersey, rather than to speak of it in the conventional negative ways that Americans favour when talking about New Jersey. In other words, I just “used” landscape to make my character more plausible – by giving him a subject whereby his self is revealed via his likes and dislikes. If exploring American-ness, or if a deepening sense of landscape, seem to happen along the way to what I’m doing, well that’s fine. But it’s decidedly secondary.

 

Ford’s demurral is important. Critics and reviewers routinely praise his sense of place, and he has been variously labelled a Southern or Western writer or a chronicler of suburban life because of the details of his personal background or the landscapes he has used in his fiction. But his own view questions not only such labelling but the very notion that setting possesses some totemic quality in his work:

 

To write a story and set it in, say, Connecticut (a state I’ve never lived in and scarcely even left the car in), all you really need is a map and an instinct for placenames that can evoke a setting in a reader’s imagination. Maybe it helps if you’ve been there; but it’s far from a necessity. I just set a tiny little story on a train going from Cork to Dublin. I had to ask my friend Colbert Kearney what one would likely see out the window of that train at about two hours out of Cork, sitting on the right-hand side. That’s all I wanted to know. The rest was what the characters did and said. I’ve never been on that train, I should say… I use landscape pretty much the way Toulouse-Lautrec said he went about painting stage scenery – for the purpose of making the goings-on in the foreground (whatever the principals are doing) seem more plausible. I take a very unromantic view of place, or “sense of place”. For me, place in fiction, and for that matter place here on earth, is pretty much inert. We humans impute importance to place; we assert that it has genitive powers, that it causes us be this way and that way … To me, such assumptions about the importance and influence of place have bad consequences, as they can cause us to deny responsibility for our own behaviours, while assigning responsibility to “other” forces … I’m much more interested, in moral terms, in those qualities of life which we can absolutely take credit for. So, place is just a vacant canvas for me, one that I fill in as I need to in order to make more important matters persuasive.

 

It’s hard to imagine, say, an Irish writer making this statement, at least so baldly. In Irish fiction we have come to expect a close thematic connection between character and setting, either celebratory (That They May Face the Rising Sun, for example) or ambiguous (Joyce’s work the locus classicus). And Ford’s definition of place as a “vacant canvas” sounds distinctly American in character. It is interesting to note how often, not just during the Bascombe novels but in his short fiction as well, Ford’s characters are travelling on holiday or business, reflecting on “more important matters” as they drive the interstate or pause in train stations, rest stops, hotel rooms, or taverns in strange towns. His latest published story, “Leaving for Kenosha”, which appeared in The New Yorker last March, is structured around a family leaving New Orleans after the disaster of Katrina – a move that prompts the stay-put narrator to consider the ways in which his daughter is beginning her own journey into adulthood and away from him.

 

In The Lay of the Land, Ford frequently has Frank Bascombe ponder his current profession in terms that appear to square up to the great American theme of moving on. “It’s really about arriving and destinations,” Frank says, “and all the prospects that await you or might await you in some place you never thought about.” And later in the book, after describing his neighbours in Sea-Clift, he comments:

 

All of us understand we’ve tumbled down onto this slice of New Jersey’s pretty part like dice cast with eyes shut. Our sense of belonging and fitting in, of making a claim and settling down is at best ephemeral. Though being ephemeral gives us pleasure, relieves us of stodgy house-holder officialdom and renders us free to be our own most current selves.

 

Such pleasure and freedom have not, traditionally, been available to Europeans when they “tumble down” somewhere different from where they’ve grown up; physical displacement, when it comes, is often utter, radical, involuntary. It is commonplace but true to say that the United States, founded in the context of expandable frontiers and the loosening of old-world tribal ties, has always offered its people the opportunity to shift life and start anew, often many thousands of miles away, while retaining citizenship and the comforts of being circumscribed within the same manifest destiny. Displacement, in such circumstances, can turn inward, partly explaining the psychic wanderings of a Binx Bolling, a Harry Angstrom or a Frank Bascombe.

 

Now, what of the voice in these passages, the beguiling, intimate first-person speech that gives The Lay of the Land and so much of Ford’s other work its distinctive cast? Considering its qualities moves us closer, perhaps, to what Ford himself values most in his fiction. As he puts it:

 

For me, literary language (true, as well, in Shakespearean iambic pentameter) originates and finds sustenance in spoken language. And I’ve always felt the freest to create an illusion of speech – or of language that’s personal – by writing in first person. This is because the narrator’s personification carries with it at least the illusion of speech and real speech’s at least superficial plausibility. 

 

Ford’s diction here – “illusion”, “superficial” – hints at the magical quality of realistic fiction, what James Wood describes as the chimerical creation of characters out of nothing, their placement in an invented world. Though Ford would surely argue that it has more to do with hard work than fantasy, his fiction’s exploration of behaviour and its consequences depends greatly on this ability to convince readers to suspend disbelief. Of course, it is easy for a reader to succumb to the illusion and describe the development of a character like Frank – who has been speaking to us so intimately across three long novels – as if he is growing organically. Ford is quick to knock this notion on the head:

 

Frank doesn’t have a character other than the one I gave to him; and any expansion in his character owes entirely to my use of him as a piece of artifice submissive to my own ideas and to the accumulated materials destined to be put in play in the novels he narrates. 

 

Well, yes – though the character Ford gives Frank disguises the artifice by making him utterly lifelike. He is one of American fiction’s great achievements, and such achievements have as one of their outcomes the illusion that they are not a result of choice, with distinct formal consequences of their own. But of course they are. That rich, curious, affirming voice, like the other first-person voices in his fiction, has emerged from Ford’s discriminating engagement with narrative possibilities:

 

Obviously, this choice of narration brings with it putative limitations – in diction, in matters of temporal structure, in matters relating to the other characters – as well as specific rhetorical limitations – such as: can I make my character believably say and think all the things I myself want the story to contain? Sometimes the answer is just plain no, not at all – at which point other narrative modes present themselves. But it’s also true that when a writer stretches the limits of what’s plausible within a given point of view, a given mode of address, sometimes genuine excitement results – as when characters prove themselves able to say things that we readers wouldn’t ordinarily expect them to be able to say. I made a good living doing that in my little book of stories, Rock Springs, twenty years ago. Probably, though, what one can most accurately say is that the choice of how a story is to be narrated is a choice about freedom: which narrative mode, or point of view, confers on the writer the greatest opportunity and freedom to bring as much as possible to the page. Each choice carries liberties and also some burdens. But in that way these are no different from other formal choices one makes. Alice Munro does about as much as it’s possible to do with her narrative mode choices.

 

Using Frank’s point of view, among other formal resources, Ford does indeed bring a great deal to the page in The Lay of the Land. Much of it is bleak. The death of Frank’s son Ralph, mentioned in the opening pages of The Sportswriter, continues to weigh heavily day to day, and though Frank never succumbs to self-pity, he is always aware of this defining loss. At age fifty-five, his own mortality is more front and centre; he has recently had radioactive pellets surgically implanted in his prostate to stave off cancer. His second wife, Sally, has followed her former husband to Scotland, leaving her wedding ring behind. And the action of the novel takes place over the Thanksgiving holiday in the year 2000, during that painful political interlude between the American presidential election and the re-counted Florida ballot that would dubiously hand Bush the prize over Gore.

 

Frank’s bleakness is life’s bleakness, though as in life the darkness is brightened by much that is comic, especially in scenes where Frank engages with the novel’s rich cast of minor characters: his real estate associate, Mike Mahoney, who “hails from faraway Gyangze, Tibet (the real Tibet, not the one in Ohio)”; his son Paul, who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner with Jill, his one-handed girlfriend; his Argentine dentist, Ernesto Calderon, groomed and tuxedoed, encountered on the street as he waits for a limo that will bring him to a Manhattan gentleman’s club while his fourth wife is visiting her father in Maryland. These and many other portraits and encounters provide much pleasure for readers as they negotiate the novel’s abundant landscape. And as we have come to expect from Ford, the fictional world he so vividly populates and carefully chronicles is consistently affirming:

 

Books can contain all sorts of dire and dour information, opinion, behaviour, and not be pessimistic themselves. I hold with Sartre who wrote that we can write about the darkest possible things and still be optimistic, inasmuch as those writings prove that these dark things can be thought about – which to him was saving. And more practically, I think novels are all inherently optimistic, anyway, since they presume that a use will be made of them by a reader in some yet-to-arrive future.

 

The Lay of the Land is indeed optimistic, and generous – in character, incident, detail, mystery, sympathy and, above all, pleasure and illumination. Its scale is very much part of its generosity, both on its own and as part of the sequence of Bascombe novels.

 

I do think that one of the true generosities of novels – mine or someone else’s –  is that they treat their readers to the best language their writers are capable of delivering, and also to as much of significant experience as the writer can artfully hold up to notice ... Realistic novels are fundamentally life-affirming in that they argue that life is worth this much serious consideration – life that we might otherwise not notice, or might take for granted, or might miss. I’m glad when I can put large amounts of human-experience-expressed-in-language into formal play. Novels – art in general – tries to re-thread our experience, tries to make us notice and even like it more, causes us to notice consequences different from the conventional ones we rely on, tries to reconfigure the known world so as to let us see it better, see it as important ... When I do that on a large scale and do it competently, I’m happy.

 

Of course Ford also reconfigures the known world on a smaller scale, in his short stories and novellas, with equal skill. As well as Rock Springs, he has published two collections: Women with Men, made up of three long stories, two of which are set in Paris; and, most recently, A Multitude of Sins, an essential volume of ten pieces that, with impressive formal variety and dramatic power, explores the complex themes of love and intimacy.

 

For obvious reasons, short fiction requires an even greater exercise of what Ford, in his introduction to The New Granta Book of American Short Stories, calls “the fierce authority expressed by choosing”:

 

– to choose this word and leave that one out, to subordinate that line, clause or scene to something deemed more important; to cease and then move on concisely, or else to linger, push, dedicate more language … The power drawn from good election is part of the story’s potent capacity to command our attention and to assure us that while there’s blessedly, dismayingly, more to life than we can ever say … it is specifically by these choices that something crucial within life is illumined as nowhere else and put on radiant, consequential display.

 

A Multitude of Sins illumines the consequences of certain intimate behaviours – voyeurism, adultery, family tension, marital confusion – as radiantly as any fiction, and its narrative modes, from nameless first person to alternating third person, have been chosen and executed with a power that inexorably commands our attention. The victims of unwise choices and failures of intimacy, the book’s characters are left to contemplate the consequences of their actions and to attempt an understanding of their place in a world where, so often, reality differs drastically from what is hoped for or expected.

 

The volume opens with a four-page story, “Privacy”, which hinges on the misidentification of the age of a woman the male narrator has been secretly watching undress, and closes with “Abyss”, a sixty-page novella about an adulterous relationship between two real estate agents, Howard Cameron and Frances Bilandic, which culminates in a tragic visit to the Grand Canyon. The final story, which has resonated powerfully with many readers, is one of the rare occasions in Ford’s work where he presents a story through multiple points of view, shifting back and forth from Howard’s free indirect speech to Frances’s. This shift allows readers – or this reader, at any rate – to see the developing drama from contrasting perspectives in a way that gives great depth to the action.

 

When I asked Ford about the evolution of this story and the formal choices he made as he wrote it, his answer was characteristically complex:

 

Some stories one remembers writing better than others. This one I retain only in bits and pieces. The raw origins of stories (the ones I write, anyway) almost always become subsumed by the story as it’s written, so that I typically don’t remember the actual risings very clearly. I can tell you, though, its factual origin. I, one day, just thought about the consequence of someone taking his girlfriend on a secret, adulterous trip to the Grand Canyon, and then having her fall in the canyon and kill herself. It seemed both such a dramatic and also an absurdly squalid event that I couldn’t, of course, resist – having a natural yen for the squalid and the absurd ... Everything in these events – going to the canyon, skulking off with the wrong woman, staying in scabby motels, would’ve depended, in Howard’s mind, on secrecy. But then Frances’s unexpected death would blow apart that vital secrecy and expose how absurd it was, after which I could make up the emotional consequences. All the story’s formal properties – its alternating point of view, its length, its devotion to its distinct dictions, its attention to making place visualisable – all these were just consonant with getting every scintilla of drama and absurdity out of the situation. It’s a long story. A novella. I don’t know if it really had to be as long as it is. But I made it that long because I got such a kick out of all the settings and the conversations, and the sense of deathly impendment. Henry James has a wonderful remark from his preface to What Maisie Knew. There, James says – and I’ll shorten it and probably ruin it – there are no themes so human as those that reflect, out of the confusion of life, the close relation between bliss and bale, between the things that help and the things that hurt. I thought that “Abyss” dramatised that close relationship, that the chemistry between bliss and bale produced a rather unusual set of dramatic and moral consequences. Many readers have expressed affection for that story; but the truth is it was a bit of a chore to write – took me weeks. Plus, I never thought the alternating point of view was very successful.

 

Whatever the role of New Jersey in the Bascombe novels, it’s hard not to view the setting of “Abyss” (and in other stories in A Multitude of Sins such as “Charity” and “Dominion”) as emblematic of the characters’ dilemma – the title itself suggests a link between the landscape and the story’s moral consequences. As always with Ford, however, the captured world operates as if it is nothing but the world, and the illusion is critically, painstakingly, maintained. His writerly emphasis on the nuts and bolts of narrative choice and formal authority fits with his Chekhovian belief in the power of the tangible:

 

I occasionally am aware of a detail’s, or an action’s, or a situation’s “larger” reference. And I generally try to suppress the detail’s emblematic propensity, in behalf of what seems to me the higher moral good realistic fiction affords: namely, of affirming the here and now, of insisting that regular life is all we’ve got to work with, and of affirming the regular life is a fit subject for high art. When I was writing The Sportswriter, which occurs on Easter, I noticed the accumulation (quite unnoticed and definitely unintended) of crucifixes in several scenes as the book progressed. I straight away got busy throwing them out – or most of them, anyway – since they seemed to be hijacking the book away from what I thought it was about ... I don’t want details, scenes, actions to refer the reader to any ideas other than the specific ones I intend. Sometimes a tree is just a tree – or, in my case, in all instances. The reason we look “deeper”, or “behind” details has to do with the fact that we see real life’s imperious absoluteness as a bad predicament – one we need to solve; that there needs to be “more”. I, of course, also believe there needs to be more – which happens to be the reason I’m a writer and not, say, a priest. For me, the imagination – as revealed in a story  – is an ongoing promise, entirely adequate and completely manifest, that more is actually available to us. A wonderful passage in Barthelme’s story “The Indian Uprising” goes: “Some people ... run to conceits or wisdom, but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement there to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.” That’s what I think too.

 

The Lay of the Land is perhaps Ford’s most liberal fulfilment yet of the ongoing promise of his imagination, of his re-threading of complex experience, of his delivery to readers of the aesthetic excitement latent in the nutlike word. And yet the novel has come to us at a time in American history when the richness and variety and promise of American culture are more than ever under threat from ignorance and political folly. Ford has made his narrator a lifelong Democrat who, as he goes about his days in the suspended animation of the 2000 election, makes frequent comment about politics, sports a BUSH? WHY? sticker on his car, and gets into a fistfight in the Johnny Appleseed Bar in Haddam with a guy who physically attacks him for his political beliefs, while above them the image of George Bush’s “grinning, smirking, depthless face” appears on the bar’s television screen.

 

Of course, such a scene is simply part of Ford’s reconfiguration of the known world through the medium of his narrator’s language and experience. (In the same scene, Frank refers to Al Gore as a “stiff”.) Frank’s politics are not Ford’s, though eight years after Bush’s election, post-9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Ford is not optimistic about the health of his culture. He has been quoted as saying that Americans are “the least political beings in the world” and he remains uncertain whether that will change:

 

It’s a good question … as to whether Americans will gain in political savvy as our national situation gets direr and direr. I mean, as the economy dictates life to us, we’ll definitely wake up to that, surely. We’re doing it now. But whether that’ll translate into saner decisions about choosing leaders is not at all clear to me. We’ve been so inexcusably irresponsible in electing our leaders – leaders who lie to us, who isolate us in an ignorance we crave, who play to our worst human frailties – it may just be too late for enhanced sophistication to do us any good. In America, we live in a declining culture, there’s no doubt about it. Our choices are not all – if they ever were – our own now. And I say this as a patriot, as a citizen who thinks America has much good to offer the world, as well as much good to learn from others that could make us better.

 

I asked Ford if the time he spends in Europe has an effect on his view of the political landscape of the United States, if it offers an alternative perspective.

 

For some time now, there’s been no real political dialogue in America. For venal reasons, conservatives only talk to conservatives; and likewise people of the left – where I nominally fit – talk to other people of the left. There has to be a consensual contract with people if you’re going to talk to them, a contract that confirms that the other person’s listening. Otherwise you’re just blabbing at a wall. And that contract has been abrogated by both political poles. But I do have the sense, in Europe – where people don’t have the same narrowed, vested interests as Americans – that political discussion at least tends to identify the obvious and, somewhat more reliably than Americans do, call it what it is. Obama has seemed pretty good at identifying the obvious, which is probably why he’s done well early on …Though it remains to be seen if he can continue – given all the competing interests he has to appeal to for the purposes of getting himself elected – to say what’s merely obvious. Alas, America at present and always is such a mercantile culture, that something’s always being sold – and that includes the truth. It’s for sale. Certainly Bush’s greatest flaw among legions, as a president, has been to misidentify the obvious. He lies about very important things would be another way of putting it.

 

For an artist who puts such talent and energy into the pursuit of the truth and a clear, honest depiction of America, such political misidentification must be very painful indeed. For, as his comments make clear, Ford’s vision is a moral one, and his books consistently search for value and meaning in experience, American and otherwise. Ford likes to quote a sentence from Denis Donoghue’s biography of Walter Pater: “Language is where values – moral, social, political – are most compellingly found in action.”

 

When I read [this sentence], it rather loudly resonated in my brain, insofar as it speaks to the rather complex issue  – which James take up, too, in his prefaces – of what constitutes action in fiction, especially stories that otherwise might seem to have little or no physical action – guns going off, cavalry charges, etc. A certain kind of reader likes to say, “Well, nothing really happens” in this or that novel. And my answer often is: “No, that’s not true. Language happens. And language is what fiction is entirely made of.”

 

Language happens in Ford’s fiction at the most significant levels. The way he chooses words and shapes sentences as he builds his stories, the voices he conjures up to tell us so much about modern American life, the rich veins of dialogue he creates – this formidable artistic arsenal produces stories that are part of a deep literary tradition, one of the great things America has offered and continues to offer the world. And the national political shortcomings he describes – lack of a consensual contract, failure to identify the obvious, the selling of the truth – are social faults and failures of language that fiction, if only by example, is well equipped to combat. The specious action of current American leadership needs the kind of rumination and probity characteristic of good fiction. The Lay of the Land, like Ford’s other books, offers us such reflection, expressed in language at its value-laden best; sentence by sentence we move through a world that is so like the one we know and yet entirely new, full of mystery and humour, and imagined superbly in words that speak to us with sympathy and truth.


Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

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