J P O'Malley

Similar, but very different

Similar, but very different
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Richard Ford published his debut novel A Piece of My Heart in 1976.  But it was The Sportswriter — which introduced the world to Frank Bascombe, and other marginalised characters trapped on the edge of the American Dream — that distinguished Ford as a serious literary force. The two books that followed, Independence Day, which won him the Pulitzer prize in fiction, and Lay of The Land, completed the Frank Bascombe trilogy.

Canada, his seventh novel, begins in Montana in 1960. It’s narrated by Dell Parsons, the son of a retired Air Force pilot, and a schoolteacher. The novel begins when Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva, are sent to jail for robbing a bank, leaving him and his twin- sister, Berner, to fend for themselves. Dell eventually travels to the town of Fort Royal, in Canada, where he gets a job as a cleaner in a hotel. He spends his days talking with the owner, Arthur Remlinger — who we subsequently learn has a mysterious past — and his peculiar friend, Charlie Quarters, an odd man with a keen interest in fascism.

Ford’s novel portrays how one foolish decision can destroy a whole family, mapping out a future of destitution and loneliness. The book sees Ford return to a simpler style of prose, marking a distinctive shift away from the more elaborate language of the Frank Bascombe novels.

If Ford’s previous two books deliberately stifled any attempt at conventional narrative techniques — such as straightforward plot lines — Canada works in the opposite direction. Dell begins the novel with a confession: ‘First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’

The book is essentially divided into two parts: the first half deals with the finer details of Dell’s parents’ abysmal attempt to rob a bank. Dell then comes to terms with that failure, by attempting to begin a new life in Canada. Splitting the novel in two halves is a risky move by Ford, but one that pays off nonetheless.

Moreover, by opting for a basic approach to language, Ford has created in Dell Parsons, a voice that is hypnotic, and which sings, with its simple sturdy cadence. If the Frank Bascombe trilogy books were informed with a style that favoured the cerebral, and the convoluted, Ford doesn’t give himself the same room to meander here. Primarily because Dell is recalling when he was 15-years-old; as a result, the narrative skips along in a simpler diction. As Dell is a 65-year-old man, when he is narrating the novel, however, Ford allows him the privilege of making life-affirming statements at his discretion.

Just like Frank Bascombe, Dell Parsons has a penchant for philosophical catch phrases that give him strength in his time of crisis. After reading a letter sent to him by his mother from prison, he says: ‘Loneliness I’ve read, is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front, where it’s promised something good will happen.’ When Dell realises he has to travel to Canada, and that he will never see his parents again, he says ‘knowing this, however, has not made me cynical. Cynical means that good isn’t possible; and I know for a fact that good is.’

Ford is an existential writer who always sees the glass half- full. He takes characters, drifting on the margins of society, and coaxes them back out of the darkness.

Much of his intellectual inspiration comes from the great American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson. By subtly using Canada (both physically, with its vast open landscape, and ideologically, in comparison to the United States) as a leitmotif throughout the book, Ford analyzes these ‘Emersonian conceits’: things which at first glance seem similar, but which have striking disparities when looked at in closer detail. One such example is when Dell crosses the US border for the first time: ‘It was Canada there. Indistinguishable. Same sky. Same daylight. Same air. But different.’

After twenty years of writing in the voice of Frank Bascombe, Ford was on the verge of becoming a writer who was happy to revel in his solid body of work. Canada has proved that he is still at the top of his game. This might just be his most accomplished work to date.