The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Anyone who followed Frank Bascombe through Richard Ford’s previous novels in this trilogy (The Sportswriter and Independence Day) will be forgiven for some trepidation on picking up the final instalment, which is situated during the Thanksgiving Day weekend of 2000. American holidays haven’t been good to Frank. They tend to induce introspection, disruption from the usual routine, and interactions with one’s family, all of which are somewhat risky activities. And for Frank, who is now settled in what he calls his ‘Permanent Period’, such moments of personal and national soul searching usual trigger transformation. A change is certain for the country, mired though it is in the aftermath of the disputed Bush-Gore presidential election. But what kind of change can come for someone in his Permanent Period? What’s next, other than the ‘Next Level’, and what can that be other than death itself?

Frank is estranged from his first wife. His second wife, Sally, has been gone for nearly a year, having followed her former husband (who had been presumed dead) to the Scottish island of Mull. He cannot survive even a brief conversation with his son, Paul, without nearly coming to blows. His daughter, Clarissa, is pursuing her own transformations. His Tibetan colleague in Realty-Wise is itching to climb another rung on the great ladder of being. And Frank is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Anxious might be too modest a word to describe Frank’s state of mind.

Once again, Richard Ford paints a masterly picture of the modern condition in this gripping conclusion to his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The prose is dense with hesitant metaphor and promiscuous symbolism as Frank asserts, contradicts, and reasserts himself, more acted upon than acting, and incapable, seemingly, of transacting the smallest bit of business without disaster—physical, emotional, spiritual—rearing up and biting him. It’s hard to imagine a character more in need of our sympathy, or less able or likely to accept it.

Of course, endings are very much the theme of The Lay of the Land. One way or another, it’s the end for Frank. Eschatology breeds an intemperate clamouring for teleology. But whether Frank can piece together his life as a whole is an open question. And the end, when it comes, is always a surprise, however much we prepare ourselves.

Recommended without reservation.

Independence Day by Richard Ford

Frank Bascombe has entered his Existence Period. It’s that time in his life when he is unconnected to those around him, cut off from his ex-wife and two children who have decamped to Deep River, uncommitted to the current woman he is seeing, and fundamentally distant from himself. He tools around Haddam, New Jersey, in his large automobile, encased in a kind of protective shell, observing, noting, scoping out the particulars of properties he may be in line to shift in his new career as a realtor, idling at the curb and in his own life. But the Existence Period is unstable, bound to collapse at the first sign of real emotion, whether that be despair or hope in the face of tragedy. And tragedy is definitely lurking. Everywhere.

A momentous Fourth of July weekend descends into a nightmarish world of crazed house purchasers, senseless murder, self harm and mutilation, and the constant threat of violence meted out by others or oneself (if one’s impulses are given free rein), which is met by vigilance in the form of patrolling police, private security, metal bars on domestic windows, handguns, or mace. Or it is allowed to overwhelm one, washing through one’s life like a purging torrent. And there is little doubt that Frank, loquaciously professing platitudes and realtor buzz to stoke up the confidence of himself and his clients, is not up to the challenges that he is about to face. Little wonder that it seems highly likely that his Existence Period is about to come crashing to a close.

Once again Richard Ford’s writing is a marvel of density and light. He effortlessly draws the reader into claustrophobic inducing proximity to Frank’s mutable conscience and visceral encounter with his environment. Much of what we encounter here is remembered experience—a lot of ground has been covered between the end of The Sportswriter and the time of Independence Day. But how much of that reported experience is dependable? Frank is such a cocktail of conflicted emotions and aspirations overlaid with jaw-dropping rationalizations. A reader can’t help but begin to feel sorry for him (even if he isn’t especially likeable). You begin rooting for him to break the surface of his supposedly placid Existence Period even if doing so may destroy him.

And break through he does, though not in any way he would have planned or wished. And change does look set to come to Deep River and to Haddam. Crazed homebuyers transform into peaceable renters. The literally barking mad are rendered merely speechless. And Frank looks hopefully toward his next period, which may, he tells himself, be his Permanent Period.

Riveting reading. Highly recommended.

The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind by Peter Goldie

The death of Peter Goldie in late 2011, as is increasingly becoming evident, was an immense loss to philosophy. Few thinkers move so deftly between the rarefied atmosphere of analytic metaphysics, moral psychology, and ethics, and the real stuff of life, of who we are in our living rooms when we think about our lives. The posthumous publication of The Mess Inside, which was already completed at the time of his death, brings Goldie’s considerable insight to bear on the role of narrative in our lives. Not, as one might suspect (or hope), the role of fiction. But rather the role that our autobiographical narrative thinking has when we reflect on past actions (and errors), present plans, and future possibilities.

Goldie describes his view as a modest narrativist view. He disavows the strong narrativist stances of Alasdair MacIntyre and Marya Schechtman in which our self narratives constitute our selves. But equally he distances himself from anti-narrativists such as Galen Strawson who maintain that narrative has no role at all in establishing who we are. Goldie threads the needle with an account of narrative that acknowledges its capacity to provide narrative structure—coherence, meaningfulness, and evaluative and emotional import—to our lives without binding us to a fictionalizing metaphysics.

One of the distinctive components of Goldie’s view is found in his account of free indirect style, which he borrows from the literary critic James Wood. In literature, free indirect style facilitates an emergent dramatic irony as evaluative and emotional terms flit between a narrated subject and a narrator. Goldie argues that something similar occurs in our autobiographical narratives, where we also invest the actions of our narrated subjects (ourselves) with evaluative import: I think back now on my foolish behaviour at the office party last year. There, the regretful foolishness is projected by me as narrator on my own past action. This kind of self-reflective bootstrapping helps me to think through my past in preparation for a better, less foolish, future.

Equally important, perhaps, is Goldie’s use of the French notion of tâtonnement, which is a kind of tentative, groping towards something. It has a technical use in economics that Goldie, as a former investment banker, was no doubt aware. But here it characterizes the jumbled, blurry perspective we have on ourselves, a perspective that we revise again and again through our narrative thinking. It is, or can be, a lengthy process, but the narrative sense of self that emerges provides us, so Goldie maintains, with all we want and need in a narrativist account of the self, without the unfortunate fictionalizing metaphysical tendencies of strong narrativist theories.

There is a great deal here (much more than my brief survey permits me to show) to agree with, to question, and to outright reject. And there will undoubtedly be a fair amount of thinking, narrative or otherwise, spurred by Goldie’s substantial and subtle contribution. One only regrets that Goldie’s further participation in the conversation has come to a close.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Almost any story you choose to read by Alice Munro will better than almost any other story you might have read, even those by Alice Munro. There is something lulling in the cadence of her sentences, her observational choices, her sudden turns that are not turns at all. Something that makes you think, as you read one of her stories, that this is it, this is what real life, a certain life at least lived in a certain place and time is like. Honesty might be a word for it, if fiction can be honest. I hear the voice of my mother, or an aunt, or one of my grandmothers in these stories and I think, even if I disagree with what they are saying, that’s the way they see it.

Of the stories in this collection, I would single out “Amundsen” for its clash of naïveté and self-serving motives, “Haven” for the unflattering portrayal of familial relations, and “Train” for the way it treats a life as iterations in a quest for solidity and peace. But I might just as easily have chosen any of the other stories.

The final four pieces in the collection are grouped together under the title “Finale”. These are, Munro says, “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” In them, Munro looks at a few incidents of her childhood that cast her, momentarily, in an unfavourable light. They are, some of them, shameful thoughts or actions that she may be excising. In “Night”, her father reassures her. “People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.” And it is precisely what she needs to hear in order to overcome her anxiety driven insomnia. Other regrets, such as not attending her mother’s final illness, death, and funeral are not assuaged by the calm comfort of a wise father. “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”

Highly recommended.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Beyond the limits of nostalgia lies a strange land of wistfulness, dream, and fetish. This is the landscape that Michael Chabon charts in Telegraph Avenue whose nominal focus is Brokeland Records, a struggling used-record store on Oakland’s storied Telegraph Avenue. Brokeland is a natural focal point for nostalgia, as customers seek to revisit the music of their youth. But it is also the jumping off point for visitations to the land beyond nostalgia, as some customers seek out the false (?) nostalgia of times which were not their own. As, for example, when one customer, the hefty white whale-lawyer Michael “Moby” Oberstein, embarrassingly takes on the argot of the black hip-hop artists he admires. Or, when Julie Jaffe and Titus Joyner, both teenage boys, live their imaginative lives in films that were released when their fathers or even their grandfathers were young. This slip from nostalgia to false nostalgia to outright fetishism tokens a corresponding, and possibly worrying, disconnect with one’s own time and place.

Chabon’s writing here is never less than rich, at times moving up the colour palette to lurid, as when he takes on the stylistic excess of H.P. Lovecraft in order to dramatize young Julie’s imaginative life, or when he follows an exotically coloured, escaping parrot in one long paragraph over ten pages. This might be described as filmic writing, as Chabon moves from scene to scene, with long-shots and close-ups and jump-cuts. Initially it works against a close emotional connection with any one of the large cast of characters. But over the course of such a long novel that temporary distancing is more than compensated for by the emotional impact of culminating plot.

Fathers and sons, without doubt, are the pervasive motif in this novel, as well as the respect due to each. And although motherhood and certainly pregnancy are important both in terms of plot and language—the two main female characters share a midwifery practice—Chabon does not succeed in bringing them or their concerns fully to life. Perhaps there are some territories that remain yet unexplored by this absorbing writer.

Don’t be put off if the music and films referenced in the novel are only on the edge of your awareness. This is not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a contest in geeky knowledge. Indeed the suggestion is, iterated over and over again here, that it doesn’t matter whether you have direct experience of pop-cultural phenomena. Second or third-hand experience will more than suffice. Or even just a name dropped in the right place.

Plenty to think about and enjoy here. Highly recommended.