November 6, 2014

Frank Is Back

Richard Ford's new book, Let Me Be Frank with You, is in one way the best of his Frank Bascombe series. It consists of four "novellas"--they are really just long stories--about Frank Bascombe at age 67, and in no sense form a novel, but they do form a sequence leading up to Christmas just after hurricane Sandy has erased Ford's literary territory. I'm happy to have predicted correctly that Ford would add an installment that took in 9/11 and the collapse of the real estate bubble and consequent meltdown of the financial system; still happier to report that the Sea Clift community was washed away by a real storm that was easily foreseen from The Lay of the Land--Hurricane Sandy, foregrounded in the first story in this collection, "I'm Here." (Echoes to the reader of previous volumes of "Still here," "Not dead yet," and so on.) I am happiest of all to say that this new book corrects certain major flaws in the series, particularly marked in The Lay of the Land. In doing so, Ford has recovered his voice and the book is newly relaxed and, better still, very poised. As the jacket flap notes, he's at the top of his game.

Frank is now retired and no longer very interested in the real estate business. The Permanant Period is succeeded by the New Normal, which is where we all find ourselves now, I suppose. Property does figure in these stories, but more in the first two than in the last two. In fact, what is out front in the new book is that Frank is a failed novelist. That he wanted to be a writer of fiction, first, and a sportswriter only second, here gets more play than it does in the novels after The Sportswriter; and the brilliance of the stories reminded me of something I'd more or less forgotten, that Ford is one of the best short story writers alive. There is no trace of literary compromise in these stories, no false masks: Frank reads for the blind but he reads (of all things) V. S. Naipal's Enigma of Arrival and expects, confidently, that his reader will know who he's talking about and accept his comments. It seems that Ford has finally decided to let himself go and write exactly as he pleases. The result is that the discrepancy between what Ford thinks and what Bascombe says seems to be erased, and happily, what Bascombe says is worth reading and seriously gumming over (for his toothless contemporaries). He allows himself more comment on the political scene and it is witty and welcome.

The novels in the series suffer, as they proceed, from an ever more laborious accumulation of detail until by the time we get to The Lay of the Land it seems that Ford has not only had it with Haddam, but has wearied of the labor of gathering the matter that makes his realistic surface realistic. It must have been exciting at first--a whole new region on the Jersey Shore, entirely his invention, a kind of Jersey Yoknapatawpha. But as he built it up, real estate development took over, and he spent more and more time in his car, driving through a forest of strip malls, with the reader with him in the back seat. The Lay of the Land had other problems, but I think almost all readers agree it is too long and laden with detail. Ford hardly bothers in the new collection and I expect there will be reviewers who say it is "thin." But a remark Ford once made in an interview has stayed with me. He said he was mainly interested in language, and what he does with his characters and story material is "give them some language." I've never found the prose of the Bascombe novels to be their strongest point, although it is more than pretty good. But in the new book, a return to the story form seems to free Ford's language away from the heavy fact-loads of the previous book and allow him to write more poetically, to say whatever he feels like saying about sensitive topics like race and gender, and to use whatever kind of language he prefers, including some pretty good Southernisms. This one sings; this one shows a writer at work--

Ford's key comment about Frank as a writer is that his talent wasn't really suited to the longer form. This comment is an exaggeration, and one shouldn't deprecate the achievement of Ford's novels, but the truth is, he's a terrific writer in the short forms and in the relaxed mode he allows himself here is free to write better and give his characters more interesting language than he has done before. Ford knows more about the limitations and possibilities of the first person than anyone but Don DeLillo, and the mode works far better for him in the short story than in an extended novel (which can feel as if it's just going on and on.)

The phrase "let me be Frank with you" has, I suppose, a double meaning. Let me be candid, of course--Candid Bastard has been my cute nickname for Ole Bassett Hound--but Ford also limns the suggestion that we, his readers, let him, Richard Ford, be Frank Bascombe for a while. The autobiographical feel of these stories--whether or not it answers to facts in Ford's actual life--is sronger than ever, and the difference between authorial and narratorial voices has never been thinner in Ford's work. Let me be clear--all this, coming from me, is praise. This is my favorite book in the series. It is an example of what is sometimes called Late Work. It is reduced to essentials, but it is at the same time a flowering--in this book particularly the language has flowered. It has nothing unnecessary, nothing like padding or excess detail or "worked up" material, but the voice is richer, more nuanced, and truly witty instead of wise-ass. Frank is the main character in all four stories. I'm happy to say that Ford finally succeeds in making Ann Dykstra, his former wife, unattractive enough that I understand why he fell out of love with her and recoiled when she wanted to have him come back to her. I even understand his ambivalence about his (living) son better, although the sentimental memory of the dead one still grates for me.

It's an anomaly of Ford's work that he doesn't believe in character, even in the self (denies having one of his own) but his work is profoundly identified with a series of books with the same central character. Indeed, one of the things about Let Me Be Frank With You is that there is something that is "being Frank," and in these stories Frank is in character throughout. Here is a novelist whose major work is character driven (certainly not plot-driven) who denies the very idea of character. Ford's belief that there is no character or self other than the self-illusion is a serious position, perhaps a valid inference from the premise that there is no soul. It is a phlosophical problem in which I was once interested, and at one time I'm sure I agreed with him; but it is a belief diffiuclt to hold after the effort of writing a couple of novels. His point hinges on a kind of extreme precision: the characters in a novel are fictions. Thus their "character" is fictitious. It would be interesting to engage Ford in a longer conversation on this subject in order to learn which of several possibilities is the reason for his belief that the self is an illusion. He may think that the effectiveness of the illusion of character in a novel is evidence in itself that the self is illusory. Or perhaps he has a philosophical position on the matter, which would make him a kind of skeptic. Or perhaps it is a political view. I have no idea which is the basis of his belief, but the mere observation that the "characters" in the novel are nothing but a great many sentence does not necessarily support this conclusion. I no longer believe it, myself.

I imagine Ford enjoyed writing these stories; one never has the feeling that he's getting bored shoveling it full of facts he thinks needs, and that enjoyment makes the stories all the more enjoyable to read. I read the book straight through without stopping and was delighted by it. If it is more of a coda to the first three books, and so resembles Updike's final Licks of Love, May I Be Frank with You caps off the series in a very satifying and vigorous way.

Ford has moved to Maine, it appears. Perhaps we can look forward to new work similar to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kittredge stories, or something like Carolyn Chute's Maine redneck books, but no more about Frank Bascombe. But if Ford wrote a character that Frances McDormand could play, I for one would be glad.


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