November 5, 2014

Jersey Bore

The third of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels, The Lay of the Land (most likely not a double entendre complimenting his enduring marriage), brings Frank into his fifties, or what he calls the Permanent Period, the time of life when goals are mostly achieved. This is the book in which Frank truly earns his initials, F. B.

What follows is a long post. It's a long novel. But the length of the post should not be taken to mean that I liked the book, in spite of myself.

In the previous two novels Frank professed not to think about the past, living steadily forward; he now has the trail of the human serpent behind him. It is, of course, a past that Ford has built for Frank in two previous books, but the difference now is that Frank thinks more about it than he used to, as if Ford has finally had to admit that experience is more than something we drag behind us without a backward glance. The mid-fifties bring perspective and mortality. Where Frank was facing life in the earlier books, he is now also facing death. Previous to the opening of this volume, for one thing, he's developed prostate cancer.

One of the stranger scenes in these novels is Frank's meeting with his ex, known only as X in The Sportswriter but later identified as Ann Dykstra. Divorced from the start of the series, Frank can't shake off his former wife, although she re-married and moved to Deepwater Mooring, Connecticut, a place somewhere near Essex on the shore. (Ford has a penchant for putting his characters on the edge this way. The whole strip of Jersey shore he uses as the main setting of the new novel is out beyond the farthest edge of the real Jersey Shore.) Her "asshole" husband (per Frank's son) dutifully got Alzheimer's and died in time for her to return to Haddam, buy her old house back from Frank, and provide him with the opportunity to move to a spit of land vulnerable to every passing storm. (Why would she do that?) She is the golf coach at a local private school, the de Tocqueville Academy, where presumably all are equal. She asks Frank to come out to the school for a meeting--the kind of formal appointment now common to so many amicable divorces--and then, when he meets her in the gym, where she has her own driving range, she tells him that she loves him and would like to live with him if he is willing. But Frank too has remarried and is still married, though his wife has taken off, as Ann perfectly well knows. Ford never comes up with a convincing response from Frank to his ex-wife's effort to connect, and we have to believe that connection is something Frank prefers to avoid and that Ann was right to divorce him in the first place. It may be that Ford's narrative requires Frank to be uninvolved, but after so long it begins to seem decidedly odd, and in this novel Frank's avoidances accumulate so persistently they become a theme, but a theme that undercuts his oft-stated positivism and turns him into a pretty cold fish. Ann and Frank have been divorced for seventeen years, and many times Frank has expressed his love and longing for reconciliation. Then, when the chance arrives, he flees.

It is some measure of Ford's gifts that these characters seem like real people to us, but this moment is a strange one in Frank's life. For he has seemingly, through previous books, wanted to get Ann back. He was plausibly and amusingly jealous and dismissive of her pompous second husband. Ann rejected Frank, originally; he had wanted to stay married, although his behavior at the time was pretty odd for someone who felt that way. Unable to come to terms with the very premature death of their son, Frank became "dreamy," and being an avoider never got to the bottom of it. (Memo to Frank: Get into therapy!) Much of what Frank goes through will be familiar to anyone who has lived through and gone on after divorce, including the persistent, though inadvisable, longing to recover the lost, once beloved person to whom one simply could not stay married. There is a kind of life after divorce that none but the divorced know, and Ford is really very good on that, even though he has been married to the same woman for most of his adult life. But this key scene with Ann Dykstra falls flat.

Ford has to spend a lot of time explaining Frank's odd recoil. While it's true that he is married, the woman he is married to has flown the coop because she, bizarrely, is also still married to someone else, a man she has believed to be dead for something like thirty years. (All these are literal marriages, not metaphorical ones; Frank is nothing if not a literalist.) Suddenly the dead husband just shows up, and for no reason, the woman leaves Frank to resume life with her earlier husband--or, to be as charitable as possible, to finish it (she finishes him off, in fact; he ends up face down in the ocean off the Island of Mull, a suicide, which is what he should have been in the first place, or so we are asked to think). None of this is remotely plausible, either when you read it or when you think about it later. If it were plausible when you read it the first time, Ford would get away with it, but it all smells of contrivance and novelistic desperation. I think no one with a heart, even an otherwise unsentimental reader, can fail to be touched by Ann's attempt to reconnect with Frank, and none of his explanations, except for one, make much sense. Part of the problem is that there is nothing obviously wrong with Ann. The one explanation that rings true, that they are not compatible, is not enough by itself even though true, because nothing Frank has said about Ann or his marriage leads one to think they're incompatible. He is such a genial guy, if somewhat distant and cool, and she is such a nice woman, if a little stern and a little stiff, that it's hard to see why they can't get along.

After Frank comes down with prostate cancer, his grown (officially lesbian) daughter comes to stay with him and manage his medical care. Although it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, the relationship between father and daughter is the deepest emotional connection Frank has in all three books. There relationship does convey something real about th connection between fathers and daughters. But in fact, she is a younger, kinder version of her mother and their relationship, in all respects but sexually, is like that of a man and wife. It's hard not to think that Ford would have done better to have brought Ann back into Frank's life and explored that story. Instead, he portrays Ann (his ex-wife, formerly known as X) as oddly indifferent to his illness, and that just doesn't fly if she is telling the truth about her feelings when she declares her love, for if she loves him as she claims, she and not their efficient daughter would come to his side and help him find the best treatment.

But it can only be a strange lack of feeling that leads Frank to turn her down. He does it the way he does so much, by going wholly passive. He doesn't respond, he doesn't even say, "No! That's a terrible idea! What the hell are you thinking?" He just avoids. He thinks it is a way to be nice. This brings us to a core problem with this novel and ultimately with the series, which a fourth might somehow resolve, but which is left in the air as Frank approaches his sixties, not yet fully adult. He is so sensible, down to earth, and positive in so many ways; there is so little irony in Ford's presentation of the character; yet we can hardly be expected to think that Frank's general forward-looking "positivist" approach to life is presented as a good model for living in the last thirty years of the American Dream. Frank tells us, through so many encounters and situations, that he is doing it right, so much so that it's all but impossible to suppose the author disagrees with him.
It is of course a naive fallacy of interpreting the first person to read it as the author's "I." But as I say, Ford is not an ironist and Frank is a truth-teller (at any rate, he's truthful with us. He doesn't lie. From his friends and relations, he merely conceals and evades). Ford's project is to present Frank as he is, in the world around him, described at length, as it is. If in the end we don't think Frank is a terrific guy, he is not undermined by the irony of the author but by our own assessment of him as less than noble. This is one of the ways he resembles Updike's Rabbit, but Updike is an ironist and part of the power of the Rabbit series comes from the difference between author and character.
When Frank's second wife leaves him for her resurrected first, Frank again fails to react. In this situation Ford knows something is wrong, but he has to get her out of the picture, simply because she is in the way. Wally, the ex-husband, is a deus ex machina, like any walking corpse back from the dead.
He is also a jerk, like all the men Frank's wives are attracted, aside from him. Ann Dykstra's second husband is an ugly caricature of a wealthy man with nothing on his mind, except possibly Republican bromides. Frank's perception of these other men is dubious, but Ford is so embedded in the character his narration doesn't call it into question. Is Frank an accurate and honest observer? I think we are to suppose he is.
Something, however, is seriously amiss in this third installment of the life and times of the boomer everyman, and Frank does any number of things that don't make sense for such a seemingly sensible man. He doesn't stay in character. But if we look back, there is evidence enough that he has one important character flaw. He has been incapable, all along, of forming a lasting attachment or making a real emotional connection with anyone else, and pretty much every time one of the other characters makes an attempt to connect to him, he recoils and portrays their attempts as repellant. Ordinary real estate customers become obnoxious assholes in the second book, Independence Day. Ford really succeeds in making a couple who keep trying, and failing, to buy a house into obnoxious jerks. This failure to convince them to buy a house culminates in one of the funniest moments in any of the books, when a very attractive woman and potential neighbor parades naked in front of her picture window across the street. Only Frank sees her; the man who should be buying the house across the street from her doesn't look at what's on offer, and Ford wants us to feel that it's truly his loss, a denial of pleasure he very much wants. The naked woman across the street signifies life's possibilities, on the plus side, but the poor, grumbling, fucked-up customer just can't see where his opportunities for pleasure lie, and he fails to option the house for all kinds of dumb believable reasons. What's wrong here? It's a failure of sympathy on Frank's part, even if the cavorting nude is only his own Cheeverish fantasy. He presents himself as an affirmative type, but it's hard not to notice, as the novels go on, that everyone Frank comes in contact with turns out to be some kind of asshole. But not Frank. In The Lay of the Land, however, he acts like an asshole regularly enough that we may well wonder--is Ford just tired of him?

When I finished reading Independence Day, soon after it was first published, I thought "Ford's had it with Haddam." The implication was present in the name of the town or suburb all along; it's one of Ford's little jokes. Frank Bascombe, the relatively honest and very scrupulous real estate agent, has had 'em, taken his customers for a bundle. And in Haddam, most people have it all (or pretty near to it). In The Lay of the Land, Frank has had it with Haddam and moved to a beach community to the east, on a spit of land threatened by storm, tide, and mere erosion. There's no reason to believe that the house he lives in will outlast another major storm, and it's pretty likely that one will strike even though this is not Hatteras. (In the next installment, he should bring Katrina north, another Long Island Limited, and time it to coincide with the financial meltdown, the defining event of the century so far.) [NOTE: this was written before Hurricane Sandy.] Although he calls this the Permanent Period, there’s no permanence in life, and what comes afterward is the Next Level, where we don't want to go yet must. In the end, Frank comes back to earth, the wandering second wife happily restored after the drowning of her inconvenient previous husband, but between the first pages of the book, in which Frank decides he is not yet ready to meet his maker, and the last, when a plane touches ground, he is seeking his level without finding it.

Something is missing that would finally make Bascombe appear fully human; as it is, by the middle of the third volume he is just too much the author's stand-in and all-purpose spokesman. Ford has boxed himself in. Verbal energy abounds, description is endless, but invention flags. This one could have been a better book with help from a conscientious editor, but not a lot better. The problem is that Ford's ambition exceeds the scope of the novel, even of the Novel. Apparently he has succumbed to the American novelist's main midlife problem. He's created a world, a convincing one that seems in so many ways to be a good time slice of late 20th century American middle-class, middlebrow existence. That achievement is large and laudable. But somehow, along the way, Ford seems to have come to believe not only that he has a lot to say, but to believe what he says as he speaks through Frank. This just isn't what a good novel does. A good novel, certainly, gives us a fine picture of life that we can recognize, and Ford achieves that result to such good effect, so much of the time, that it's really a shame that one ends up feeling like telling him to shut up. But he has freed Frank to comment on things to such a degree that it begins to feel like he is George Will writing a novel as an excuse to tell us what he thinks about everything, which is more in Philip Roth's line.  Maybe novelists ought to keep that impulse to themselves. But once one has lived past the age of fifty, the urge to comment can gain the upper hand and overcome the desire and obligation to get on with the story.

I'm not about to write Ford or Frank off. Ford has said he thinks this is the last novel in this sequence, but even though Frank (needlessly) gets in the path of a bullet at the end, he's not dead yet, and life in the Republic has gone in such a direction lately that I hope Ford comes back and deals with 9/11 and the real estate bubble and the meltdown of the financial system, which will have direct impact on the world Frank inhabits, sweeping away the prosperity the the earlier novels lovingly chronicled: the hurricane that will send Frank's calm beach community crashing into the ocean some day soon. If I were Ford, I'd be writing the fourth book, and it would confront the disaster that we now face. Ford by inclination and knowledge is well positioned to do it. He's as talented as our other two major novelists, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, and there's reason to think he is closer to reality than either of them. No other novelist now writing in America, not Junot Diaz, not Geoffrey Eugenides, not Jonathan Lethem (don't even talk to me about Jonathan Franzen) knows as much about real life as Ford has absorbed in whatever backwater he actually lives in. I'd like to think he is the one who will get there in the next book.

Meanwhile, I wish Frank had taken Ann Dykstra's offer and quietly flown off to Reno with her to dispose of the errant second wife and renew his commitment to Ann. As Updike observed in an interview a short time before his death, a good novelist writes about something other than himself. A writer who fails to realize that almost anyone else is more interesting than he is somehow fails our hopes and disappoints our faith in him.

Novelists, following textbook ideas about "central consciousness," often give us characters who function to channel the writer's observation. There is such a figure in nearly every novel by Robert Stone, sometimes an anthropologist, sometimes a journalist, someone who stands in for the author and provides an observer's focus. This device can be called the Conrad Narrator. Others, like Faulkner, provide a narrative voice, or a chorus of them, through which the story is filtered. And of course, there is the central consciousness in many of the novels of Henry James, sometimes brilliantly perceptive and sometimes blinded by egotism or even paranoia, as in The Sacred Fount. Frank Bascombe is a hybrid, a first-person narrator who is for the most part a neutral but interested observer. By the time we reach the third volume, we can't fail to notice that he has almost no friends. He has had girlfriends, a wife long ago, and now in the third volume he is married to a woman who was set up by the author to get out of the way for most of the book. The limitation Ford imposes on himself requires Frank to be a detached, but also unattached, observer, so that he can move freely from place to place and scene to scene, observing and commenting. I began to feel Ford would have been wiser, long ago, to use the third person.

Then there's this commenting on everything. Nothing is presented frontally and left alone; Frank has plenty to say about everything. The real trouble with this novel is that Ford has fallen in love with his own voice and started to believe his own publicity, that is, he now takes himself seriously as America's premier major novelist and commentator on Life in These United States. Sometimes there's a flash of the old wit and irony: his son Paul comes home for Thanksgiving planning to bury a time capsule outside Frank's house, a sort of joke about Ford's grand ambition in these books to make a record of the way it was between some time in the late seventies until sometime in the twenty-first century. Ford has contracted a case of Important Writer Syndrome, as many successful American novelists do. He is perhaps the most gifted writer of the boomer generation, more interesting than his only serious rival, John Irving. He has clearly thought long and hard about what novels can do and what to do to make a novel relevant in the age of publicity and mass entertainment. Once itself a form of mass entertainment, the Novel now occupies a dim corner of the culture, the outermost shingle of the Jersey shore. Ford should be applauded without stint for brightening that corner, and for a common rather than a specialist reader. He may have seen the problems, and quit to be a sportswriter, or maybe he just had to quit and make a living, but when he returned to fiction it was all out. The result was outstanding.

He may have thought he was finished with Frank in The Lay of the Land, and in a way I hope he has, but the pivotal events of the new century, 9/11 and the economic meltdown, will be irresistible to him, and the question is whether he will provide us with a fourth take on Frank or do something new. For the sake of Ford's own creative energies, I vote for the latter.

Around page 250, The Lay of the Land just breaks apart, or wide open whebn Sally, Frank’s second wife, leaves him to rejoin her resurrected husband on the Scottish island of Mull. Ford knows how unreal and inexplicable this is, and almost any reader who had something else to do, something else to read, might reasonably set the book aside at this point. It’s not like To The Lighthouse, we don’t love Sally the way we love Mrs. Ramsey (I had to set that book aside for over a year when she died), but Ford lets all the air out of his book, midway through, a terrible decision, that's all; there’s no way it isn't a huge, gaping hole in the novel’s design. Oh, Frank protests. This time he is not avoiding the human connection offered him, but simply and for no good reason being deprived of it. (Well, the avoider has fallen for another avoider--or for an abandoner, which may be even worse.) In terms of the book's structure, it’s not that Sally is an important, necessary character; she has been gone the whole time, and her departure is a retrospective story that Ford must finally tell just to explain her absence. But what reader can react except to say, “Oh, that’s the story? What the hell?” The truth, more likely, is that Ford wanted to get rid of her the first time, but found he had to bring her back.

Ford as a writer depends on Frank’s credibility to keep us engaged, far more than on any other feature of his narrative. As I have said already, the narrative thread, if not exactly flimsy, isn't exactly compelling either. Ford's one attempt to explain, however much any of us may know what he’s talking about from our own personal experience of life, doesn’t offer any satisfaction: Sally has been captured by mere contingency, to which every one of us is vulnerable. True. This is right up there with "love is transferable." True, too. But this is to say that life is a crap shoot, and nothing that anyone does to batten down the hatches can prevent a run of good luck from turning the other way. Also true. In probability theory, the Gambler’s Fallacy is the belief that at any moment now, indeed, soon, a run of bad luck must change to good, which is the reason someone keeps putting down chips in a losing streak. It’s been bad for so long, it’s just time to go good. The effect in Ford’s novel is to say the opposite. It’s been good for so long, it just has to go bad. This surely allows too great a role for chance to intervene in a settled life, which is what Frank had. Okay, we understand that he gets cancer. He’s fifty-five, most men at that age have some kind of prostate trouble. But a bullet-proof marriage loads the dice.

For my money, giving Frank a wife, no matter what good qualities he has as husband material, is the real wrong idea. His function, as Ford knows but evidently realized too late, is to be alone. Since he's nice, companionable, easygoing, and decent, it is hard for a writer to keep him free of relationships: he has to block them, either by making Frank do something out of character, like recoil from his son's needy hug, or fail to respond to his ex-wife's touching courage, or to insulate him against his daughter by making her a lesbian (only sort of).

Lots of people, very likely, have experiences in life that when they look back force them to realize they weren’t paying attention at the time. Someone you want to marry says “I’m not good wife material,” or “beware, there will be a price,” or “If you’re ever unfaithful to me, I’ll kill you,” and you say, “Oh, yeah, sure,” get married anyway, and later on you pay the inevitable price. That wasn’t contingency at work, it was your failure to pay attention when you had fair warning well in advance and could have made a rational decision to bag the project before it turned into the kind of serious commitment that would end in financial disaster, a broken home, or a visit from the police. But Frank, or Ford, isn’t in that position, and it is solely, and unfortunately, a requirement of the plot that Frank is without a life companion. Action is character, not the reverse; and in the difference we find the basis of all satisfying stories, our own included. What we do determines what we are, even if in life it takes well past middle age to find out how that works out. Few if any of us are so well-equipped with character from an early age for the reverse to be so, however much in hindsight it may seem that way. (I realize that there are arguments to the contrary, but in terms of this book, nothing in Frank’s character, other than the novelist’s needs, accounts for this particular reversal.) Okay, what happens next? And that, reader, is the only reason left to keep going in this case.

What happens next is something random, of course. Frank has a listing to show, back again in present time, and a meeting with his friend Wade Arsenault, the father of his ex-girlfriend, Vicki, dispatched long ago in novel number two. With Wade, he is going to watch, as a new and interesting form of entertainment, the implosion demolition of an old, elegant hotel called the Queen Regent Arms. The metaphorically inclined may view this event as analogous to the implosion of the novel that has just taken place; the literal-minded, those of us who are more like Frank than not, will ignore the problem and keep reading. It’s now a new book, that’s all. New morning, new book, same old Frank. I think anyone would be entitled to be put out, but Frank has other virtues as a narrative companion, and they are what has kept you reading up to now, so chances are, you swallow the flaw, fatal as it be, and turn the page. Forget Sally, she wasn’t an important character anyway, she was just someone Ford had to get rid of, an obstacle on Rt. 27. And does he sell the next house? Who cares?

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