Sunday, September 09, 2007

Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe Trilogy

A few months ago I briefly mentioned having read and enjoyed Richard Ford’s first two Frank Bascombe novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day. I recently finished reading the third, The Lay of the Land, and I liked it as well, though I don’t think it’s quite as good as either of the first two. In that earlier post I mentioned that I’d not expected to read these books but was inspired to do so after reading Steve Mitchelmore’s lengthy piece about the series. Since it was Steve’s essay that prompted me to read the books, I’m going use it as a jumping off point for my own discussion, along with Ellis Sharp’s blog post that essentially disagreed with Steve’s take on the book.

In his essay, Steve refers to James Wood’s recent assertion that "the major struggle in American fiction today is over the question of realism". Yet, says Steve, "from the reception of the trilogy one would imagine the struggle is over already. Writing is a report from the real world directed through the craft of fiction. Richard Ford has written such a book. That’s it." Ellis suggests that reviewers responded in this conventional manner "because it is, after all, only a conventional narrative", that it’s "a condition-of-America novel, capturing the state of the nation – or a significant, representative slice of it – in autumn 2000", and that it’s "written as if modernism and post-modernism had never existed".

But, Steve continues, "Frank Bascombe . . . isn’t so sure". Isn’t so sure about what? That "writing is a report from the real world directed through the craft of fiction"? That "the struggle is over already"? Elsewhere, Steve wrote that these books are the way they are because "Richard Ford wants to tell the truth about his character and the only way he [can] tell that truth is in this form, a displaced monologue" (the link is to a post about an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s latest novel; scroll down for the remark about Ford). The phrase "displaced monologue" intrigues me.

Ellis writes that he hadn’t read the first two books when he read the third, but that he wasn't too concerned about this, because it seemed like "a self-contained narrative". This is where I’m not so sure. Because on the face of it, yeah, the third novel can seem a lot like "a report from the real world directed through the craft of fiction", it does seem as if it could be about the state of the world today--though, interestingly, the today of the novel is late 2000, before "everything" supposedly "changed". But Frank Bascombe doesn't pretend to have the answers. We see a lot of a certain corner of America through his eyes, but he doesn't pretend to have any real idea why things are the way they are, or even necessarily how they ought to be. He has a lot of ideas about people and sketches convincing portraits based on the most superficial of details, but there is no reason for us to take his version of reality as accurate, if only because, contrary to what Ellis says in his post, he is in fact wrong about plenty.

Flipping through The Sportwriter, I stopped at random on page 139. Frank is in Detroit with his girlfriend, Vicki, who he thinks he might be in love with. He has been caught having rifled through Vicki's purse for he-knew-not-what, effectively wrecking the delicate trust held between them. He muses:
So much of life can't be foreseen. A hundred private explanations and exculpations come rushing up into my throat, and I have to swallow hard to hold them back. Though, of course, there is nothing to say. Like all needless excuses, the unraveling is not worth the time. However, I feel a swirling dreaminess, an old familiar bemusement, suddenly rise into my appreciation of everything around me. Irony is returned. I have a feeling that if I tried to speak now, my mouth would move, but no sound would occur. And it would scare us both to death. Why, in God's name, isn't it possible to let ignorance stay ignorance?
Here is the "dreaminess" he complains of throughout the book. Then, he climbs into bed, apologetic:
She smiles and sits looking at me as I pull the sheet up around my chin and begin to think that it is not a hard life to imagine, not at all, mine and Vicki Arcenault's. In fact, I would like it as well as it's possible to like any life: a life of small flourishes and clean napkins. A life where sex plays an ever-important nightly role--better than with any of the eighteen or so women I knew before and "loved." A life appreciative of history and its generations. A life of possible fidelity, of going fishing with some best friend, of having a little Sheila or a little Matthew of our own, of buying a fifth-wheel travel trailer--a cruising brute--and from its tiny portholes seeing the country. Paul and Clarissa could come along and join our gang. I could sell my house and move not to Pheasant Run but to an old Quakerstone in Bucks County. Possibly when our work is done, a tour in the Peace Corps or Vista--of "doing something with our lives." I wouldn't need to sleep in my clothes or wake up on the floor. I could forget about being in my emotions and not be bothered by such things.

In short, a natural extension of almost all my current attitudes taken out beyond what I now know.

And what's wrong with that? Isn't it what we all want? To look out toward the horizon and see a bright, softened future awaiting us? An attractive retirement?
Here he has unfolded a fantasy of what life might be like married to Vicki. It's an attractive vision. But it's a fantasy, no more likely to happen than are his visions of the lives of others likely to be true, even if sometimes they basically are. One thing he does seem to know, however, is that things could easily be different. His vision of life with Vicki, he knows, could just as easily be replaced by another vision. While he could be happy with Vicki, he knows just as well that he could have just as easily never met Vicki. Somehow, she wants more. In his dreaminess Frank is unable to convince her that the love he professes for her today will still be there in a few months, let alone years. He objects, but finally cannot blame her. He is all about contingency, his language throughout the trilogy is full of words like "though" and "possibly".

He doesn’t know why things happen. As Steve notes, this feeling of dreaminess is never really explained. Frank seems to be drifting through his life, unable to be fully present, especially after the death of his son Ralph (prior to the present-day events of the first novel). This inability to be present seems to have led directly to the end of his first marriage, though he’s not entirely sure what happened. In the second book, Frank is selling real estate and has moved on to what he calls "the Existence Period" in which he has been able to "ignore much of what [he doesn't] like or that seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away". Here he explains this in greater detail:
Every age of life has its own little pennant to fly. And mine upon returning to Haddam was decidedly two-sided. On one side was a feeling of bright synchronicity in which everything I thought about--regaining a close touch with my two children after having flown the coop for a while, getting my feet wet in some new life's enterprise, possibly waging a campaign to reclaim lost ground with [ex-wife] Ann--all these hopeful activities seemed to be, as though guided by a lightless beam, what my whole life was all about. I was in a charmed state in which nothing was alien and nothing could resist me if I turned my mind to it. (Psychiatrists like the one my son visits warn us about such feelings, flagging us all away from the poison of euphoria and hauling us back to flat earth, where they want us to be.)

The other feeling, the one that balanced the first, was a sensation that everything I then contemplated was limited or at least underwritten by the "plain fact of my existence": that I was after all only a human being, as untranscendent as a tree trunk, and that everything I might do had to be calculated against the weight of the practical and according to the standard considerations of: Would it work? and, What good would it do for me or anybody?

I now think of this balancing of urgent forces as having begun the Existence Period, the high-wire act of normalcy, the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up, the time in life when whatever was going to affect us "later" actually affects us, a period when we go along more or less self-directed and happy, though we might not choose to mention or even remember it later were we to tell the story of our lives, so steeped is such a time in the small dramas and minor adjustments of spending quality time simply with ourselves.
By the time of The Lay of the Land, Frank has remarried and is in the midst of what he calls "the Permanent Period". Whereas the Existence Period is concerned with the fact that "your opponent's the past and everything you've done in it and the problem of getting away from it", the Permanent Period recognizes that you are who you are, so you may as well accept it and forget about; it "tries to reconcile [the] irreconcilables in your favor by making the congested, entangling past fade to beige, and the present brighten with its present-ness":
Clarissa [...] believes all things can be adjusted and made better, and that Ann and I can finally blubbety, blub, blub. But we can't. And, in fact, if we could, doing so would represent the very linked boxes Clarissa herself claims to hate. Only they'd be mine and Ann's boxes. A lot of life is just plain wrong. And the older I get, the more clearly and often wrong it seems. And all you can do about it [...] is just start getting used to it, start selecting amazement over bewilderment.
Unfortunately, the Permanent Period hasn't been going well. He's been diagnosed with cancer, which may or may not have resulted in his ex-wife unexpectedly announcing that she was still in love with him; his current wife, Sally, has inexplicably gone off with her own ghost from the past--the past, in general, in all its heaviness, has insinuated itself unhappily into his present. Throughout the novel, things unforeseen by Frank happen, and he describes the Permanent Period as "in retreat", its "usual ... protocols aren't restoring order", his "brain buzzing with unwanted concerns" (his emphasis).

Ellis writes:
The Lay of the Land is a narrative of people stories – its range of characters is expansive, encyclopaedic. Often, as in Dickens, they are grotesque or comical or both – Frank Bascombe’s appalling next door neighbours, for example. His Tibetan business partner. His daughter’s creepy New Age boyfriend. And the telling is engaging and often very funny. Bascombe’s neighbours for example – monstrously plausible. You relish their end.
I'm curious about this idea that we "relish [the] end" of Frank's "monstrously plausible" neighbors. Do we? Obviously Ellis did, but I didn't. These characters--the Feensters--certainly do not come off well in Frank's description. But the Feensters exist off-stage, essentially (Frank never engages with them during the events of the novel). They are portrayed as people who came into some money and uprooted themselves, moving into an expensive house on the beach and then, like the stereotypical nouveau riche they were, tried to change everything to suit them. Frank doesn't like them, but a few pages before the violent scene, he is able to see them as tragic, as essentially lonely outsiders. He says: "Though the old sympathy again filters up for the poor all-wrong Feensters, who, I'm sure, suffer great needless misery and loneliness here in New Jersey with their Bridgeport social skills. My heart goes out to them, which is better than hoping they'll die." Frank tends to think that people make decisions for all sorts of wrong, fanciful reasons, that they would often be better off back where they came from, or ditching the grand vision, or whatever. His recognition of both this and the fact that he often doesn't have a clue why he's done or said something (all his theorizing notwithstanding) enables him to achieve a certain empathy towards others, even towards seemingly repellent figures like the Feensters. They seem unpleasant, but that Frank is able to recognize the tragedy of their situation is indicative of one of his best traits. The violence that they then meet is unnecessary. Ellis says that he "had a hunch there would be a satisfyingly violent Hollywood-style righteous conclusion" and so was unsurprised by these events. All I can say to this is that I was, in fact, surprised by the violent conclusion—perhaps because I had read the first two books, which do not have such events (though they do have culminating set-pieces), or perhaps it's because even in this particular volume the most important occurrence is something much more quiet and in keeping with the rest of the narrative--Frank's sudden realization that he has finally accepted his son's death. But the violence, along with the post-violence scenes, felt tacked on, forced, and those scenes are, in my opinion, the least convincing of the whole trilogy.

Ellis observes that Frank's "insights into other people always seem persuasive. He never seems wrong about anything. He’s an easygoing, likeable guy." It seems to me he’s "wrong" about a lot, doesn’t understand a lot (his children are an almost complete mystery to him). His insights into other people do often seem persuasive, but then he reverses himself, or takes the unexpected (for him included) action. He doesn't know why he does things, and ultimately, for all his apparently persuasive insights into human typology, doesn't understand why other people do the things they do, either.

Ok, now let me finish up by returning to Steve's phrase "displaced monologues". I understand this phrase to mean that the monologue we encounter--Frank Bascombe's three-book narrative--is removed ("displaced") from the actual life of the narrator. These narratives end up being the distance between Frank and his own lived life. They are first person, present-tense narratives, each covering the few days surrounding a major holiday (Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving, respectively). And yet it's hard to imagine Frank the narrator actually doing much of anything, actually living the life described. He tells us about being on this or that board, about being a Sponsor (essentially a volunteer who goes about listening to others and offering helpful advice), about reading to the blind, about selling real estate. He is not a "joiner" and yet repeatedly tells us about his involvement with groups. The voice that tells us these things, the essentially literary voice this failed writer employs in his telling, the failed writer who, as Steve points out, claims to distrust the truths of literature--this voice seems far removed from the life described. I think in the telling he removes himself from the doing, and his ideas about what period of his life he's currently in further distance him from that life. Ellis says he didn't experience that distance, that there was, instead, "a hearty surplus of feeling" on the page. I would counter by saying that, in my reading of the whole trilogy, a lot of feelings are referred to, but few actually felt by the Frank employing the voice. I would argue that what makes the third book not work as a separate self-contained narrative is that by the end of the book, this distance is beginning to collapse, and that we can only really understand that distance sufficiently through having read the first two.


Ellis said...

Interesting. I need to read the complete trilogy and reflect on this. I guess it was a bad idea of mine to start with volume three.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Richard, just to clarify: when i say FB isn't so sure, I mean he isn't so sure that fiction has such an easy relation to the world as the critics reviewing Richard Ford's novels, hence FB giving up writing fiction.

And I meant the "displaced monologue" is Ford's own; FB is his displacement . But I guess it also goes for your interpretation too.

pip said...

I invite you to listen to the audio version of Lay of the Land and you may come away with a greater appreciation of the rich language in the masterpiece. Oh how I miss Bascombe. RF's novel Canada while interesting is disappointing...a real come down from his previous work. I don't like the characters. I don't appreciate the story much.