End of Story: Richard Ford and the Afterlife of the Novel

First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

With his opening sentences Dell Parsons, the narrator of Richard Ford’s Canada, kills the novel stone dead. The first sixteen words lay out, with bone-white clarity, the events which constitute the book’s ‘plot’, burying it before the act of narration can really begin. The narratory verb ‘tell’ is an affront, an overturning of storytelling’s iron law of ‘show don’t tell’. Distinctly out of place, it draws attention to the act of making, like scaffolding left after a building project has been completed. If a novel is a deed then here the deed has already been done. Even before the first paragraph has ended,Canada pulls the rug from beneath its own its structure. The novel’s form is cast adrift, left disenchanted and abandoned by its own content. For a novel which, on the surface, has all the appearance of an epic, a great American novel if you will (the paperback edition is over four hundred pages long), to completely undermine its own unfolding in such a manner is no small feat, and leaves the reader in an uncomfortable and disconcerting place.

Readers of Ford’s work may recognise this lack of narrative conviction, a desire to dispense with stories, from elsewhere in his oeuvre. Frank Bascombe is someone for whom the space between reality and appearance, between fiction and life, continually re-presents and problematises itself. He is a character who repeatedly feels ‘insubstantial’, and often wonders about ‘disappearing into life’, a vanishing act to which he has, crucially and characteristically for Frank, a profoundly ambivalent relation. But then, what might one expect from a man who gave up writing in order to write? Time and time again in Frank’s world fiction and life come together in a moment of mutual questioning before breaking apart once more. This movement is not a struggle exactly, it promises no overcoming, no resolution, only a future where the two forces will rise again like waves on the tide and encounter one another over and over.

In a conversation with his ex-wife Ann in Independence Day Frank asks her to ‘tell him something that’s the truth’. The exchange goes back and forth until Ann says:

“You should go back to writing stories, Frank. You quit too soon.” I hear a drawer open and close wherever she is, my mind ablaze with possibility. “You could have everybody saying what you wanted them to, then, and everything would work out perfectly — for you anyway. Except it wouldn’t really be happening, which you also like.”

“Do you think that’s what I want?” Something like this very thought, of course, is what put me to sleep at Sally’s today.

“You just want everything to seem perfect and everybody to seem pleased. And you’re willing to let seem equal be.”

Towards the end of their conversation is the following:

“Everything’s in quotes with you Frank. Nothing’s really solid. Every time I talk to you I feel like everything’s being written by you. Even my lines. That’s awful. Isn’t it? Or sad?”

“Not if you liked them.”

“Oh well . . .” Ann says, as if a bright light had flashed somewhere outside a window in an otherwise limitless dark, and she had been moved by its extraordinary brilliance and for a moment become transported. “I guess so,” she says, seemingly amazed. “I’ve just gotten very sleepy. I have to go. You wore me out.” These are the most intimate words she’s addressed to me in years! (I have no idea what might’ve inspired them.) Though sadder than what she thinks is sad is the fact that hearing them leaves me nothing to say, no lines I even can write for her. Moving closer, even slightly, even for a heartbeat, is just another form of storytelling.

Ann admonishes Frank for allowing the fiction, the appearance, to stand in for the real, to be its equal. She aligns his impulse towards fiction with a twofold desire: his wish for ‘everything to work out’, and his inclination towards that which is not ‘really happening’. The latter element, the implied falsehood, both undermines and re-affirms the former. In the end, his talent for writing — lines she liked — breaks off their conversation and creates a space where Ann is transported (or rather a space where Frank imagines her being transported), loses herself, or the affected mode she has adopted, and reveals something ‘true’ and intimate. This passage reveals one of the most fundamental problems of fiction. The flash of bright in the limitless dark expresses the power of literature, one capable of breaking through the linear course Frank and Ann have constructed for themselves. However, what is most disturbing about this flash of light is not its intensity or its fleeting duration but the fact that in the end it reveals itself to be nothing other than a part of the fabric it seemingly escaped. Ann’s momentary lapse into honesty merely results in speechlessness: Frank is no longer able to write her lines, her intimacy is ultimately just another narrative form. What, for Frank, is sadder than the sadness Ann identifies in being written is the fact that the real itself is, on reflection, just another part of the same text, the same story.

This attempt to cross the boundary of narrative from within its confines and the continual recuperation one finds beyond its horizon is evident in Ford’s earlier work too. In Fireworks, a short story that like Independence Day takes place in the build up to the fourth of July celebrations, the principal characters Eddie Starling and Lois appear eager to disappear into their own lives.

While Starling worked, Lois kept house, took care of plants and fish and attended a night class for her history degree. They had no children, and didn’t expect any. They liked the size of the town and the stores, knew shopkeepers’ names and where the streets led. It was a life they could like, and better than they both could’ve guessed would come their way.

This condensed passage bears traces of giving something to Eddie and Lois fictional characters are not afforded, a quiet life outside the walls of the text. The subjects of fiction are defined by their stories. The events which are given by the words from which they are formed constitute their entire being. The reluctance of the participants of Fireworks to ‘take part’ in the story attempts to uproot the traditional understanding of character, not by making them seem more real but by pushing them into a space they are, by definition, unable to inhabit. Starling stresses his own retirement; a secession from the ‘event’ of literature. The reappearance of an old flame for Lois, Louie Reiner, tries to draw Starling into action but he refuses. It is only when his comfortable continuity is interrupted by a force from outside, a mistakenly dialled number that leads him to hearing a call from a son he never had, that Starling sets out. He drives aimlessly, wandering and recalling the abortion his first wife, Jan, had got in their old apartment. After he and Lois reunite and return home, in the car Starling asks Lois to tell him her story, about what happened with Reiner in the past, when she was with him in Reno. She replies, but in a manner that once again resists the act of narration:

I just realised I didn’t love Reiner, that’s all. Period. I realised I loved you, and I didn’t want to be married to somebody I didn’t love. I wanted to be married to you. It isn’t all that complicated or important.

Here again we find the tension between the desire for ‘telling’ and its rejection. Lois realises that the truth lies outside storytelling. It is what is and as such ‘isn’t all that complicated or important’. On the other hand, we realise that, for all his ardent refusal, it is Starling for whom the power of narrative still holds sway — Lois is able to see Reiner because for her there is no story to continue. Whereas Starling continually sees the flicker of meaning that narrative provides, he is drawn ceaselessly into the past and to continuation. But again, things are more ambivalent than they seem. Lois’s bluntness offers a gentle parody of Ford’s own precision, and despite it appearing as a moment of the truth breaking through, is just another form of storytelling. Conversely, Starling’s initial moment of rupture, the phone call, is nothing but a mistake, a wrong number. In the closing sentences of the story these questions come to a head when the flame of meaning is reignited and a flash of light comes through the limitless dark:

Starling couldn’t see. Lois opened the door out into the drizzle, turned her back to him and struck a match. He could see it brighten. And then there was a sparkling and hissing, and then a brighter one, and Starling smelled the harsh burning and the smell of rain together. Then Lois closed the door and danced out before the car into the rain with the sparklers, waving her arms round in the air, smiling widely and making swirls and patterns and star-falls for him that were brilliant and illuminated the night and the bright rain and the little dark house behind her and, for a moment, caught the world and stopped it, as though something sudden and perfect had come to earth in a furious glowing for him and for him alone — Eddie Starling — and only he could watch and listen. And only he would be there, waiting, when the light was finally gone.

Lois and Starling experience something true, something just for them, cut free from their respective pasts. It is a triumphant moment, the manifestation of the blunt, present love that Lois previously described. That it is also the most literary passage in Fireworks reaffirms the movement of narrative recuperation most forcefully: the attempt to break out, as it must always do, fails. Ford’s writing is cut through with a wave-form movement of narrative, between dismissal and a resurgence that emphasises the prior dismissal, which goes against the grain of narrative fiction even as it rebuilds it. The final sentence is absolutely explicit in this regard. Starling will not be waiting once the light goes out, neither will Lois, only the reader will be. Their story is at an end, and the meaning, the enchantment, the flash of light like a dying match, they have managed to recapture, is erased. The question one might well ask then, is why? Why, in the face of its obvious futility, this continual presentation of narration as a problem within its own narrative mode? The movement of storytelling and the desire to escape from its clutches that literature problematises allows it to continually question and disturb the solidity of the ground between writing and life. Literature is the rupture, the break, but this is itself ultimately subsumed back into the practice of storytelling, from the very fact of being composed of language. This is inescapable. It is asking the question why, why literature? that literature must always be asking. Its power lies in its futility.

Time to close the distance this fissure has opened up and turn back towards Canada. Rather than merely exemplifying the ‘crystalline prose’ for which Ford has been much-lauded, with its combination between a stony precision and expansive softness, Canada’s opening sentences can instead be read as a distillation of this current in Ford’s work: the questioning of the status of writing and its relation to life. Dell’s words are the nexus of an unsettling sense of distance, of spatial and temporal displacement, which reverberates throughout the novel. This distance is inscribed from the outset: Dell firmly fixes the events of the book in the past, forging a separation between the reader and the text. The narrator opens a gap the reader is unable to close, an emptiness left by the self-destruction of narrative progression. Writing is exposed to the void left by the death it has enacted. Having told all there is to tell it finally has the silence where it can speak. This stillness opens up the possibility of an afterlife, an echo, in which to search for form. Canada is the soft susurrance of this echo. This displacement is not merely geographical, or even historical, but also distinctly literary. Canada in this regard destroys the possibility of ending by ending before it has begun, the very embodiment of concluding by realising that there is a lack of conclusion and feeling that lack (to paraphrase Kierkegaard).

In this space the novel can try to have a life that, in Dell’s words, is ‘passed along to us empty’ where ‘hidden meaning is all but absent’. Linked to the opening up of this space is the distance created by the position which Dell Parsons has to the text. Dell relates the bank robbery in North Dakota which his parents commit, their subsequent arrest, his mother’s suicide, the separation and departure from the town of Great Falls of himself and his older sister Berner, his journey across the border to Canada and his involvement in two murders, with a detachment that pulls at the fabric of the events themselves until they fray completely.

Things you did. Things you never did. Things you dreamed. After a long time they run together.

This distance is not merely the discursive retrospective investigation that structures a novel like Heart of Darkness but an outright refusal, a refusal that — like Swann’s refusal of Odette — cannot truly succeed. The duty imposed on the author is always that they must tell a story. This duty is often a ‘buck passed’ to the narrator, whether they like it or not. This play of narrative rejection and redemption permeates every textual strata of Canada. The town of ‘Great Falls’ (a name that is an echo from one of Ford’s earlier short stories) in particular is bound up with that sinuous knot of simultaneous construction and dismantling that pervades the book. A town whose name both describes the trajectory of Dell and Berner’s parents once they commit the robbery, and links it to the Fall of man yet for all the while sounds like somewhere anonymous, vague and insubstantial. It is a name that seems desperate for recognition, hungry for reality and all the stories that might be embedded within, and destined to be forgotten. The geographic pluralisation of ‘Falls’ that denotes the presence of a waterfall softens the impact and dissolves the theological connotation in multiplicity.

The opening two sentences of Canada present both an end and a beginning. The displacement traces the act of writing, an act whose completion is knowingly inscribed in the very heart of those sixteen simple words. This questioning of the narrative process from the very outset, of course, is not unique to Ford (Banville’s ‘Who Speaks?’ at the opening of Shroud or Beckett’s The Unnameable ‘Where now? Who now? When now?’ being two obvious examples). But where Ford differs is that, in opposition to the intensity produced by the two other examples (Vander’s academicised, fey-musicality and Beckett’s narrator’s wild expectorations), here this indeterminacy is scattered across a wide plain of language stretching from horizon to horizon. The mode of questioning is not one of atavistic interrogation but of resignation, a resignation realised in the face of the uncomfortable feeling produced by the twofold character of Ford’s style: its compacted familiarity and vast ‘landscapality’. Rather than a perfection of the method of closeness and expansiveness that undoubtedly defines Ford’s narrative prosody, Canada, like the best of Ford’s work, presents that method as its own self-critique. The lead-like heavy-softness, words of commonplace simplicity infused with meaning and seemingly boundless historical scope, is a rhythmic method ideal for the articulation of its own undoing. Writing is remote in the double sense of the word, cut off from experience, from the world which lies outside its grasp and at the same time the closest tool to hand, the thing we fumble with and press down on to try to change that which is out of reach.

*

The question one is inevitably left with when all’s said and done is, naturally, how exactly to end? The response, which is never an answer, comes in one of the book’s final passages when Dell speaks about driving near to the place of his birth, but, as he draws nearer, the desire to return is lost:

Some days I drive through the tunnel into Detroit — the city that used to be there, now only acres of vacant lots, with the great glistening buildings along the riverside, like false fronts, a good brave face to our world on the other side. I drive up Jefferson along the river and eventually out into the exurbia toward the Thumb and Port Huron. I always think I’ll drive north to Oscoda, where I was born, see what it is today, the remnants of the air base — of which I would remember nothing. But when I see the great welcoming Blue Water arch, eight hundred and seventy feet back across to Sarnia, I lose my need, as though I was trying to possess something I never had. “You should go, sometime,” my wife says to me. “It’d be interesting. It would help you, put things to rest.” As if I hadn’t done that.

‘As if’ indeed. Dell’s response to his wife’s encouragement strikes a resonating chord with the point at which the novel began, those utterances which laid all that followed to rest. In doing so, by putting things to rest before beginning, the moment of return becomes inconceivable. The impossibility of ending (having already ended at the beginning), in the end, becomes a twofold rejection of beginnings. In this moment the notion of return is torn apart in two directions. The possibility for taking hold of the origin, of his beginnings, is opened up to Dell and, though he rejects it, would not remember it anyway. Here origin, like narrative, is faced with Weber’s (via Schiller) disenchantment of the world [Entzauberung der Welt], the secularised narrative of the Fall describing the very method of secularisation, a description of modernity’s condition as one comprising a loss of Truth. The certainty of origin, of narration, is over. We tell it again to bring it to life but it is never really there. And now, the need for it to be real, to be recaptured, too is gone. This uncomfortable distance, the distance of writing, this failure to recapture the past and the realisation that we don’t even want to, is the only thing that can be called progress. That is (more optimistically), what Ford does is show literature’s capacity for re-enchantment through works that continually take disenchantment as their object, that, in fact that disenchantment is the principal force through which re-enchantment can be reconstituted, however ambivalently.

End of story.