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“The sea closes up, and so does the land”

Richard Ford -- The Frank Bascombe Trilogy


I wanted to get an early copy of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land in order to post a review to coincide with all the others in print. Now, sometime after the event, with the arrival of my copy delayed and all the full-page reviews read, absorbed and the consensus set, it seems there’s nothing to add. The Frank Bascombe Trilogy is “an exhaustive look at the inner life of an American Everyman” (Slate), not unlike John Updike’s Rabbit series (The Daily Telegraph), the distinction here being Ford writes in a “richly textured, rolling and poetic” first person (The Times) contrasting with Updike’s free indirect style, all of which combines to make Bascombe “our unlikely Virgil, guiding us through the modern American purgatory” (The Washington Post), though the final volume does become a little bloated (The Guardian) because Ford has “failed to give him a compelling story” (The Telegraph, again). And that’s pretty much it really. Yet not one review asks the question I hoped to address before everyone else did, the question whose answer I think helps to explain the unique quality of this trilogy, the question burning into each and every page: why is Frank Bascombe writing this?

The reviews take it for granted that this is a novel like any other, only much better than most. Yet right from the start Bascombe consigns his literary career to the past. He won’t be writing a novel again. This will be something much less than that. It will be enough for him to speak in “a voice that is really mine” as he says. The manuscript of his first novel got lost in the post. Soon after he wrote a collection of stories which weren’t. Indeed they got published and were well-received. The film rights were then sold for a lot of money. Using that foundation, he settled down to write another novel. Half way through his son died, and so did the novel. “I don’t expect to retrieve it unless something I cannot now imagine happens.” That ambiguity of that unimaginable something resonates throughout The Sportswriter. It suggests that the novel must find a connection to life that it now apparently lacks.

The implications of Bascombe’s abandonment of creative writing have themselves been ignored by the experts. Recently, James Wood said “the major struggle in American fiction today is over the question of realism”, yet 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. Frank Bascombe, however, isn’t so sure, and Wood’s question is thereby placed not over realism, nor even over fiction, but writing iself.

Readers of The Sportswriter will recall that Bascombe puts the ending of his literary career down not just to Ralph’s death but also to “dreaminess”, a rare euphemism for this plain-speaker. It never becomes clear what dreaminess is exactly, only its apparently harmless symptoms (“taking a long-term interest in the weather”) are ever described. Despite this, Frank is clear that dreaminess is to be avoided. He reckons it precipitated the break-up of his marriage. Redemption of a kind, however, came with a job on a sports magazine.

If sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.

Like many other readers back in the late 80s, I was very taken with Bascombe’s voice. Indeed, reading those words again this summer prompted a nostalgic reverie. I recalled that it was like a layer of bluff and deceit had been removed from fiction. No more wild imaginative flights of fancy, I thought, no more card-shark plot teasings, no more broad canvases “taking on” the 20th Century. Instead, a voice from beyond defeat. I was so taken with its desolate stoicism that I read The Sportswriter three times in as many years. There was an irony in such returns.

If there’s another thing sportswriting teaches you, it is that there are no transcendant themes in life. In all cases things are here and they’re over, and that has to be enough. The other was a lie of literature and the liberal arts.

I returned because Frank Bascombe’s voice promised a transcendence of fiction. After all, it’s fiction’s basic promise: to give meaning to one’s life. As one reads a book or watches a film, that is what one enjoys, the illusion of meaning. But sooner or later it ends and one is exposed again to blank freedom. One can divide readers of modern fiction into two groups depending on the response to this experience: those who “devour” books so that blankness is elided for as long as possible; or those who wish books could include that experience of the “blank” in the work itself. Richard Ford certainly includes it. Frank Bascombe’s disillusion with the pleasures of the imagination defines the person he has become, the story he has to tell and the way he tells it. But of course his condemnation of literature is still literature. It’s one of the most celebrated examples of recent years. It still promises meaning. The irony gives the trilogy its uncomfortable dynamic. In principle, Frank Bascombe could write on and never stop. Every moment of his day can be described in detail. Literature is Frank’s useless freedom; he drifts, bobbing up and down on an endless ocean. To criticise him for bloating his narrative is insensitive to his predicament.

The search for land, where literature meets life, was the theme of Frank’s lost novel Night Wing. He wrote it after lying in an army hospital bed thinking about “nothing but dying”. It tells of a young southerner who “goes to New Orleans and loses himself into a hazy world of sex and drugs and rumoured gun-running” - another kind of dying; a transcendence of the self. Frank then tries to live it himself, travelling on his disability money from the army. But, after staring at “women and the oil derricks”, he goes to Mexico “to write stories like a real writer”. Everything is about finding the real. Even the retreat from one attempt becomes another.

Despite his rejection of literature, Frank’s regular resort to it demonstrates this chronic trust. In the opening scene of The Sportswriter he reads Roethke’s poem Meditation over his son’s grave, yet stops after the first line. Later, he describes otherwise inexplicable meetings with mystic Mrs Miller, a “reader-advisor” whom he claims not to take seriously yet still pays to see. In Independence Day, he recommends Emerson’s Self-Reliance to his troubled son Paul, who promptly rips out a page that impresses him. Frank’s mixture of horror and acceptance is that ambivalence in one moment. After all, which part of the essay is going to help? The whole thing together or one sentence? Why be precious if it helps Paul? The boy’s insensitivity, however, is just an extreme version of Frank’s ambivalence. While he reveres the text, he too wishes to rip the book to pieces.

It's an ambivalence that Franks sees all around him. There's his old poet buddy Bert Brisker who couldn’t write anymore so “substituted getting drunk as a donkey, shacking up with his students and convincing them how important poetry was by bonking the living daylights out of them in its name”. There’s the deeply unhappy Peggy Connover floundering in her life while carefully constructing a Great Books course. And then, worst of all, there’s Frank's Divorcee Club colleague, the sleepless Walter Luckett, writing a novel one minute, a suicide note the next. Even sportswriting is not immune. Interviewees expect the sportswriter to make things better yet, as Frank puts it, “because they don’t think it’s got worse”. All of which is soon played out in the great set piece meeting with Herb Wallagher. After small talk, Frank finds that the crippled gridiron star wants to talk about his desperation with his condition rather than provide the inspirational, feel-good story of his post-football life. So Frank calls time:

“I’ve got all I need for a good story. And it’s getting pretty chilly out here.”
“You’re full of shit, Frank,” Herb says, smiling across the empty boat dock. On the lake a pair of ducks flies low across the surface, fast and slicing. They make an abrupt turn, then skin into the shiny water become invisible. “Oh Frank, you’re really full of shit.”

As Herb cries for help from his wheelchair, Frank is eyeing the distant freedom of ducks, and very affective it is too; Frank sees what Herb sees. But of course that poetic, dreamy observation has no impact on his behaviour. It’s a purely literary moment. Frank’s readers browsing the sports magazine, however, will experience something uplifting about Herb. For them literature’s promise remains pleasantly in place. So rather than having abandoned the falsifications of fiction, Frank has merely displaced it with sports. He’s still dreaming.

Not that this is always a bad thing. Sometimes disengagement is necessary. Looking back to the time after their son's death, Frank and his wife found solace in the “irresistible” life offered in shopping catalogues; real life by mail order. Regret for the loss of that other life is detectable in one of the special treats of the trilogy, Frank’s outrageous descriptions of people according to their lifestyle and consumer tastes. Most seminarians in Haddam are not Bible-pounders but “sharp-eyed liberal Ivy League types with bony, tanned-leg second wives … who’ll stand toe to toe with you at cocktail parties, drink scotch and talk about their timeshare condos in Telluride”. His real estate assistant Mike began his career “taking orders for digital themocators and moleskin pants from housewives in Pompton Plaines and Bridgeton”. Consumerism is the new transcendence. If one has doubts over one’s life or career, don’t despair: “lease a new Z-car, buy a condo in Snowmass, learn to fly your own Beach Bonanza, maybe take instruction at violin making”. It’s also a major feature of his ambivalence. Envy and contempt compete for dominance in these oddly melancholic formulations. Frank watches the driver in “the red Mercedes with a Victorian manse in its future, or a high-roller suite at Bally’s” and it’s unclear whether he wants to be that driver or hates the idea.

It’s one curiosity of the trilogy that we never witness Frank actually buying anything other than food and drink. He doesn't even express a consumer’s temptation. Perhaps his most conspicuous possession - purchased between novels - is a Chevrolet Suburban, a large, bland car. Even if it is a utility rather than a lifestyle choice, he also climbs in to disappear into the world of activity to which it alludes. Not that he can disappear. Or rather, that disappearance implies only one thing. Frank gets a glimpse of what that is when, in Independence Day, he visits his girlfriend Sally Caldwell at her beach-side house. She's yet to arrive, so he stands on the porch and gazes at "the quiet, underused stretch of beach, the silent, absolute Atlantic and the gray-blue sky":

Here is human hum in the barely moving air and surf-sigh, the low scrim of radio notes and water subsiding over words spoken in whispers. Something in it moves me as though to a tear (but not quite); some sensation that I have been here, or nearby, been at dire pains here time-ago and am here now again, sharing the air just as then. Only nothing signifies, nothing gives a nod. The sea closes up, and so does the land.

This sounds like the dreaminess described in The Sportswriter, when fiction became a negative force, destroying his marriage. Then he had to stop writing and turn back to life. But here he is, ten years on, having ditched all creative writing, including sportswriting, still experiencing dreaminess. Frank defined it then, without definition, as a state of "suspended recognition". Perhaps it remains unrecognised. For how can one recognise death? Nothing signifies. "You don't seem to be somebody who knows he's going to die" Walter Luckett told him, and he was probably right. Frank has never been able to close the distance between himself and life. Life, and therefore death, is elsewhere. He looks back at his marriage as the time when he had a definitive connection. Now he meets his ex-wife and “I’m forever the hunch-shouldered, grinning census taker at the door; she, the one living the genuine life”. Ann is a long-suffering even as an ex-wife. Frank wishes they were still together. "You can't live life over again" she tells him. "Yes, I know" he replies. "I didn't know if you really did know that" she adds. And nor does he. But he says the opposite. It would be impolitic to deny rational truth after all. Yet he feels that might indeed be what he’s trying to do. The disjunction between his feelings and his behaviour is watched with horror by readers. But what are his feelings after all? We’re not sure. It's a question he asks himself. One weekend, close to living the genuine life, he escapes to Detroit hotel alone with the comely Vicki Arcenault. Surely this is where he can leave literature behind and live life to the full?

And I feel exactly what at this debarking moment? At least a hundred things at once, all competing to take the moment and make it their own, reduce undramatic life to gritty, knowable kernel.

This, of course, is a minor but pernicious lie of literature, that at times like these, after significant or disappointing divulgences, at arrivals or departures of obvious importance, when touchdowns are scored, knock-outs recorded, loved ones buried, orgasms notched, that at such times we are any of us altogether in an emotion [his emphasis], that we are within ourselves and not able to detect other emotions we might also be feeling, or be about to feel, or prefer to feel. If it's literature's job to tell the truth about these moments, it usually fails.

It’s not a matter of living life over again for Frank but of living it in the first place. How can one live the life promised by literature, where things are clear, where people live undivided lives? He knows that “living life to the full” is a literary notion. But how can one let go of such illusions? Vicki dumps him because his dividedness emerges in his actions. He tells her that she is the love of his life, then goes through her handbag when she's asleep. He frames it as a desire to get closer to her, but for some reason she sees it differently. She’d rather he behaved like a leading man in the romantic novel also in her handbag.

While all this makes for the traditional discomforting comedy of modern relationships, and could be read as merely that, it’s also a painful revelation of mutual isolation and its implications beyond the local pleasure of reading. It’s a revelation that depends on our uncertainty, our distance. In other words, even though Frank is narrating, we don’t really know why he does what he does, just as he isn’t sure why Vicki isn’t so keen to marry him. Still, some critics remain unaware of the irony. Scott Raab of Esquire puts the relative failure of the trilogy down to Ford's inability to convince us that Bascombe ever really buried a child. It's "too hard to forget that Richard Ford has never been a dad." So even though the novel undermines the hope of fiction, particularly realistic fiction, by making us experience its limits and as much an obstacle to communication as a means - Ford has failed because the reader retains that hope!

To demonstrate literary reasons for his critique, Raab might have used evidence of real writers writing about real lost children. He might have even limited the sample to Frank's favourite writers.

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, - no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, - neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Perhaps Raab will accept that Emerson lost a son even if the author is describing an experience, a lack, shared by Bascombe. That is, grief in a lack of grief; a lack we call, in this case, a trilogy.

The melancholy resolve of Experience, the essay from which this famous passage comes, is neat contrast to the healthy confidence of Self-Reliance, the essay Frank recommended to his living son. It’s a contrast we can also see in the trilogy: “People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say. There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.” That’s Emerson again but it could easily be Frank speaking.

Stefanie Hollmichel has written a sensitive appraisal of Experience for her blog So Many Books. What’s instructive here however is the response from her readers: “Emerson waxes disingenuous” insists one, following Scott Raab’s scepticism. “I have great trouble believing Emerson was not deeply and permanently moved by the death of his son”. Another observes that Emerson seems to be writing two essays at once: “the ostensibly intellectual one that attempts to master experience, and the subterranean, grief-stricken one. […] It's like Emerson doesn't want to admit how much experience can hurt and damage, because to do so would be to render impotent the analytical thought that means so much to him.”

While that dual essay observation is spot on - for Emerson and for Ford - its suggestion of a subtle self-deception is not. That doubleness is the necessary means for its admittance into the essay and the trilogy. Emerson’s words attest to the emotional poverty not so much of the intellect but of writing. After all, how might that subterranean grief manifest in words? He might gnash and wail with expressive heat to impress those who assume words have a direct line to the heart, but Emerson knows it would betray the cold discovery made as he writes and as we read.

[Grief] plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists.

While Emerson is accused of intellectualism, denying his feelings, buttoning himself up against reality, his critics, their emotions so much more in-tune with the real world, so safe from the impact of analytical thought, that they resist the implications of his painfully painless ambivalence. Their hope for literature must remain unchallenged.

The implications for Frank’s resistance of Emerson’s apparent failure are significant. If Emerson cannot convince writing in the experience of personal defeat, then what hope Frank Bascombe or, more pertinently, Richard Ford writing fiction? Like Emerson, Ford has made his work subject to the experience of distance. He has gone further and displaced his voice into that of a fictional character. It’s a brave decision as both he and Frank live in a culture where plain fact carries a supersitious aura. The incorrigible denial of Emerson’s and Ford’s creativity appears in a memorable set piece in the middle of The Lay of the Land. Frank has driven to meet Vicki’s elderly father Wade Arcenault to watch the demolition of a convention hall. There are grandstands for the event-hungry public and the demolition crew put on a dramatic show for them. As they wait for the big bang, Frank tries to be polite when responding to Wade’s harangues about finding himself another woman. “I guess we might as well think our life’s the way it is ‘cause that’s how we want it, Wade”.

“Haw!” replies Wade, “That’s in your brain.”
“That’s where a lot of stuff goes on.”
“Think, think, thinky, think. In your life it does. Not mine.” Wade gives my door a fearsome, dismissive bang shut.

That’s Wade’s creativity right there! From our vantage point, we also get the allusion to events beyond Thanksgiving 2000, events which other novels have used to mitigate their dreamy separation. But it too is only a controlled demolition. It too courts suffering. Naïve readers imagine themselves impaled on sharp peaks and edges of truth as they watch reruns of jets flying into towers, but they’re too forever on the grandstand chomping hotdogs. When Frank gets back to the car park, the rear window of his Surburban has been smashed. Reality is always off-stage, stirring the frustrated imagination.

The Lay of the Land began with similar noises off. Frank recalls his reaction a news item about a murder. The story upsets his hard-won equilibrium. Once again we follow him as he tries to accommodate the idea of reality into his everyday existence. Each novel covers the same ground. The career move from novelist to sportswriter and then to selling real estate were merely attempts to make literature present in the world. If sportswriting mitigated literature's remove as a form of self-help, then selling houses turned books into bricks and mortar. Frank calls realty "the profession of possibility", something he could easily also call writing novels. In the early days of his realty career, "getting people into the homes they (and the economy) wanted themselves to be in (at least for a while)" meant a lot to him. But those parentheses indicate the usual shortfall. Nothing much has changed. He's still writing of "constantly feeling offshore" and "experiencing the need for an extra beat".

He now has to contend with prostate cancer; something that may have made its home in his body yet still remains an idea. His rambling narrative toward or away from coming to terms with his condition takes him through a Thanksgiving weekend. In the first two novels it was Easter and July 4th respectively; each of them holidays, an exposure to freedom. Ford’s problem in the final volume is how to resolve that freedom without relying on the false meaning toward which the novel inevitably takes us. But significantly, Frank’s wish to have done with the imagination isn’t as strong as it has been. Now he seems keener just to speak plainly to his fellow Americans. His night-time reading is a collection of great American speeches. On the night before the big Thanksgiving meal, he wants to get into bed to read the Gettysburg Address “out loud to no one”. His visitors keep him from that ideal. He’s also writing a letter to the President which he’ll never send. Everything he does delays the conclusion: meeting a businessman to discuss investment in a “parcel” of land, visiting a lonely stranger as part of a “sponsoring” programme, getting into a feeble fight at a bar, driving up to the hospital where Ralph died. There are many more and all very engaging if you’ve invested time with Frank and want to find out what happens to him. Otherwise, it can all seem rather pointless, part of that branch of contemporary fiction relying on characterisation and fancy phrasing (“I idled down Seminary Street, abstracted and empty in the lemony vapor of suburban eventide”) to make up for a lack of traditional action. Unfortunately, Ford doesn’t have the courage of the novel’s lack of conviction because, late on, he shoe-horns event-glamour into the narrative. There’s a terrorist assault on the hospital and, later, a murderous robbery. This has almost happened before at the end of The Sportswriter, when Frank drove into the aftermath of a motel murder. Then it could be mitigated as emphasis of Frank’s lonely remove from the world of action, here they seem grafted on to punctuate the trilogy. They provide a temporary mask of plot to disguise the ambivalence which gives the overall narrative its unusual presence. At the end, having been through so much, and yet so little, Frank feels compelled to announce that the extra beat is “to live, to live, to live it out”. Yet that too is a literary expression. For Frank, for Richard Ford and for us, the extra beat is writing. We have been here before. The sea closes up and so does the land.

-- Stephen Mitchelmore (18/12/2006)

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