The case for Richard Ford isn’t hard to make. Ever since his breakthrough novel The Sportswriter in 1986, his multi-award-winning fiction has combined an unsparing intelligence with an unashamed high-mindedness about what literature can achieve — nothing less than a careful exploration of the best way to live. In some hands, this moral sense might feel self-conscious, sentimental or even faintly embarrassing. In Ford’s, it’s done with such measured skill that the impact is quietly overwhelming. Sentence by sentence, too, his prose is pretty much peerless. Every word that makes it onto the page has clearly been on trial for its life, before being triumphantly acquitted.
The case against Richard Ford is trickier — and, because it carries obvious risks of philistinism, has generally been left to ordinary readers rather than critics: that, for all his undeniable talent, the experience of actually reading his books can often be quite boring. The trouble with Canada is that it makes even us long-time fans fear the philistines might be on to something.
Not that there’s any sign of this in what will surely become Canada’s famous opening lines: ‘First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ But if that leads you to expect a thrill-packed ride, my advice would be not to hold your breath.
The narrator, like that of Ford’s notably shorter novel Wildlife (1990), is a teenager living with his mismatched parents in Great Falls, Montana in 1960 when his genial father gets sacked for stealing — in this case, from the Air Force. Struggling to adjust to civilian life, Bev Parsons soon sets up another scam to supply stolen beef to a railroad dining car, until a deal goes wrong and he finds himself owing $2,000.
Bev’s unexpected solution to this problem is to persuade his wife Neeva (bookish, sceptical, Jewish) to join him in robbing a bank. One incompetent heist later, and the couple are arrested, leaving narrator Dell and his twin sister Berner to the care of the state. But before they’re hauled off to the orphanage, Berner runs away, and their mother gets her friend Mildred Remlinger to drive Dell to Canada, where he’s taken in by Mildred’s brother, Arthur, who owns a spectacularly seedy hotel.
Dell is 66 when he’s telling the story — and, happily, shares Ford’s ability to write beautifully about more or less anything. He also shares the same astonishingly atmospheric sense of place, which serves him especially well once he reaches the bleak prairie setting of 1960 Saskatchewan.
As a thematic device, the set-up works perfectly too. A central idea of the novel is that the border separating the normal and everyday from the weird and disorientating can be (like that between America and Canada) surprisingly easy to cross, and surprisingly difficult to return from. As a piece of plotting, though, it’s much less successful. Like many a Ford protagonist before him, Dell is constantly torn between the need to explain what happened and an awareness that some things defy explanation — but in Ford’s previous work, the inexplicable has always been believable. Here, the initial transformation of an ordinary American couple into armed robbers feels less like powerful evidence of human irrationality, and more like a literary artifice created to get the book going in the first place. At times, in fact, it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of what Dell says about his parents’ ill-suited marriage: ‘[It was] 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.’ No wonder that after more than 400 pages of thinking about it, Dell’s conclusion is that ‘It leads you nowhere to think about it.’
Meanwhile, the longer the novel goes on, the more Ford’s ability to write beautifully about anything seems a weakness as well as a strength. Throughout his career, Ford has been a master of concrete details. In Canada, their sheer profusion gets increasingly wearying, as Dell not only describes at length every house, room and object he comes across — but does so several times. (One of the most common phrases in the book is ‘As I said.’)
Early on, while Bev is out choosing a bank to rob, Neeva gets Dell and Berner to join her in cleaning their home — which for some authors might be all we need. For Ford, it’s the cue for an entirely typical section beginning:
She tied a black kerchief on her head that bushed her hair out, put on an old pair of cotton trousers she rolled the cuffs up on, found a pair of black rubber gloves to save her fingernails, and began scrubbing the kitchen floor and the bathroom tiles, sweeping out the closets and washing the windows, taking the dishes out of the cupboards and cleaning the shelves with Bab-O. Berner and I were assigned to wash the floors and doors and woodwork and closet corners and window mouldings in our rooms with soap cakes and rags, and clean our window glass with vinegar…
In The Sportswriter, the narrator Frank Bascombe argues that ‘The world is a…less dramatic place than writers ever give it credit for.’ With Canada, Ford almost appears to be challenging himself to prove the same thing, even when robbery, murder, kidnapping and a spot of incest are involved. After all, why else would he spend less time on all those things combined than on a punishingly thorough guide to the art and practice of goose-hunting?
Finally, another of his traditional qualities that rather spirals out of control here is his willingness to go for those big assertions about the nature of human life. Given that this is a Richard Ford novel, it seems fair enough that Dell himself should keep such assertions coming. The overkill lies in the fact that virtually everybody he meets does the same in their everyday conversation — including his 15-year-old sister (‘You don’t have to go looking for something bad to happen. It finds you where you are’); Mildred Remlinger (‘Be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing’); Arthur Remlinger (‘People do crazy things out of despair when their certainty fades’); Arthur’s girlfriend Florence (‘Life’s passed on to us empty. We make up the happiness part’); and even Arthur’s deeply strange factotum Charley Quarters (‘A person who wants his well-deserved punishment to be over with is a desperate man’). After a while, the result is disturbingly close to self-parody.
There’s no denying the technical virtuosity at work in Canada. Open it at any page and you’ll find a perfectly realised sentence, a memorable paragraph and, if you’re lucky, one of the many set-pieces that few other writers could match. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the effect is a like one of those endless prog-rock guitar solos of the 1970s: full of enormous skill, but in the end distinctly unengaging — and, above all, far too long.