Out of Character

On Richard Ford’s latest

No tricks,” Raymond Carver crisply enjoined the prospective writer. “At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction … I tend to look for cover.” Carver was, as everybody knows, a mentor, friend, and admirer of Richard Ford; yet one can’t help wondering whether Ford’s verbally awesome but, I fear, fundamentally specious new novel would have had the maestro ducking behind a parapet.

The Lay of the Land is the third Frank Bascombe narration—Frank being the dreamy, sadly self-monitoring sportswriter of The Sportswriter,, and thereafter the less dreamy but still sadly self-monitoring real-estate broker of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Independence Day, a man at such a quidditative loss as to prompt his ex-wife to remark, “Everything’s in quotes with you, Frank. Nothing’s really solid.” Book three finds Frank the fifty-five-year-old owner of a Jersey Shore realty business, and grumpier. His second wife, Sally (last seen as his girlfriend), has left him for another man; his prostate contains a slow-growing tumor; the Florida election debacle is going Bush’s way (it’s November 2000, and Frank voted Gore); plus he faces a daunting Thanksgiving family influx. It’s a familiar setup—the first two books centered respectively on Easter and the Fourth of July holiday—and it leaves Frank well placed to ruminate, again, on his most basic conundrum: how to locate an “inner essence” that will enable him to pass off his life (to himself no less than to others) as one of merit and substance.

A ruminative novel necessarily depends on the companionability of the ruminator: we read on because we’re enthralled by the company of, say, Binx Bolling, the movie­goer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (a novel that’s a huge artistic creditor of Ford’s trilogy), and we happily refrain from pressing the more pragmatic demands we might make of other fiction. Likewise, in the earlier Bascombe installments, we’re swept up by the hero’s dappled, marvelously involving murmurings, in which chronic gloom and alienation are spotted with fleeting rays of real feeling. Those books, however, are anchored by very real familial misfortunes (the death of a child, the disintegration of a marriage, the troubles of an anguished fifteen-year-old son) that Frank, anomie notwithstanding, cannot help but humanly experience and communicate. The Lay of the Land, it transpires, has no comparable anchor—and this is where the trouble starts. Because once the spell of voice breaks, so too the reader’s horribly conditional forbearance.

Thus it struck me, about a third of the way through, that Frank Bascombe repeatedly says, does, and thinks stuff that nobody would, not even Frank Bascombe. I ended up—like Kingsley Amis reading Virginia Woolf—muttering to myself, No he didn’t; no, that isn’t what he thought; no, that’s just what she didnt say. Take the following dialogue between Frank and his daughter (nonspeech excised):

Clarissa: “Einstein said a man doesn’t feel his own weight in free fall. Does that go for women, do you think?”
Frank: “Einstein wasn’t that smart. He sounds serious but isn’t. You’re not in free fall anyway.”
Clarissa: “I don’t like dual ways of thinking. I know you don’t.”
Frank: And and but always seem the same to me. I like it.”
Clarissa: “As much as you think your life is just another life, it is, I guess.”

In isolation, an implausibly pretentious exchange wouldn’t matter much. But there are many conversations like this, and, moreover, they are not drowned into insignificance by an overpowering narrative current. For all of its brilliance—Ford’s sentence-by-sentence resourcefulness is astonishing—The Lay of the Land never pivots, as its predecessors did, on an engaging drama. The kids wash in and out of the story, as do a number of well-observed characters, which would be fine if something else gripped us—say, Frank’s dealings with his estranged wife, Sally. But since he is “no longer so blue about [her] absence,” and since Sally never takes shape as a creature of real longings, we don’t care very much either.

Which leaves us alone with Frank and his stream of observations. His physical descriptions are bright, unflagging, and very often hilarious, whether they concern the wrinkling longitude lines of an imploding tower, or runners gathering on a suburban street for a “Turkey Day 5-K.” But the effect of such dead-on accounts is frustrated by perhaps the most serious obstacle placed in the reader’s way: the many recherché, untrue-ringing, and otherwise suspect insights to which Frank lays claim. Thus the aforementioned runners provoke the dispirited comment, “It gives me the grims to think of what we humans do that no one’s life depends on, and always drives me right out the door into the street with … my head spinning.” Which in turn provokes the response, No it doesn’t, and no it doesn’t.

And it’s in this way that one eventually comes to question the very basics of Frank Bascombe: how it could be (in a novel steeped in psychological actuality) that a chronically rarefied, left-leaning, discriminating person such as he might in all seriousness and for decades and without self-acknowledged anguish or self-medication elect the dumbed-down gratifications offered by a realty job, corny leisure activities, and a circle of dimwitted and/or Republican friends and neighbors who don’t bat an eye whenever he comes out with one of his gnomic pronouncements.

One answer to all this is, of course, that Frank Bascombe isn’t supposed to add up. He’s supposed to be a dunderheaded bullshitter, a fraudulent Everyman, a failed novelist who’s sublimated his creativity into a life that’s an art performance. “Ann says I fabricate these feelings,” he notes in Independence Day. “But so what? I still have them.” It’s a fine, ambitious idea: a literary character seeking “a recognizable and persuasive semblance of a character.” It certainly worked in Independence Day. But in that novel, the suburbanite guise felt temporary, and was in any event lost in the magic mix. In these so often impressive pages, it doesn’t feel right. It feels tricky.

By Richard Ford

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