Richard Ford's new novel, Canada, is a disappointment from the first paragraph on. No, from before the first paragraph. My disappointment was set up by a NY Times review by Andre Dubus III. The author of House of Sand and Fog gushed over Ford's "extraordinary" novel and his "linguistic mastery." I had always wanted to read something by Ford, a New Englander like Andre and me. So I tapped my Kindle and began reading.
As Dubus notes, Ford begins the book by practically begging you to turn its pages. The first paragraph tells you that narrator Dell Parsons's seemingly normal parents will rob a bank, with murders to follow. The first half of the book ends with the robbery, and the second half is taken up with the murders, followed by a two-chapter afterword.
The robbery half is by far the better, the only part that moved me at all. Dell looks back from late in life on his parents and twin sister living together in Great Falls, Montana, in the time leading up to the penny ante bank heist. His portrait of his mismatched, broken mother and father is so detailed, his love for them so befuddled yet inescapable, that I was left with a deep sense of the mystery of family. How could Dad and Mom be such mixed bags, and I love them so much? In Dell and sister Berner's case, it's because, though Dad and Mom had a thousand faults, they loved their kids, and the kids knew it.
"Children can make their adjustments if their parents love them," Dell says, "and ours did."
The parents are caught and sent to prison. Believe me, this is not a spoiler. Ford's simple narrative strategy throughout the book is telling you what's going to happen then telling you how it happened. Then the twin brother and sister have sex in a scene that feels totally gratuitous, even to the narrator: "It meant little, what we did, except to us and only for the time." Then, after a brief visit with the jailbirds, and after his sister runs away, Dell is sent to live in Saskatchewan (Canada!) as the ward of an American expatriate and runaway felon who owns a shady hotel. Here he spends a lot of meaningless time with a hired hand named Charley Quarters, who "was in every way the strangest creature I had ever imagined to meet in life." Not that Charley's strangeness sheds light on anything else in the book.
I kept waiting for the promised murders in the second half to help explain the events of the first half, to tie things together, to suggest some overall design if not of life itself then at least of the novel's narrative. But they do not. What sense does Dell make of these events, over which he had no control but which altered the course of his life? Little sense at all.
Time, he concludes, "is just a made-up thing, and recedes in importance, and should."
"Life's passed along to us empty," a sympathetic character tells Dell. "We have to make up the happiness part."
Life, Dell tells himself, is "mostly . . . events that went on in my brain." Hmm, well, OK, yes, sure. Ford and his narrator seem to agree that life has no meaning other than the meaning we give it arbitrarily.
Looking back on the seemingly random events of his life, Dell says, "It is all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to maintain and restore my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I crossed. I know it's only me who makes these connections. But not to try to make them is to commit yourself to waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair." Small solace indeed.
Returning to an earlier scene, "I stood, hands in my trouser pockets, toes in the dust, and tried to make it all signify, be revelatory, as if I needed that. But I couldn't." As a reader, my feeling is, if Dell couldn't, and Ford can't, why bother?
Maybe I should have read between the lines of the review by Dubus, who says what I say but with apologetic polish:
"What actually happens in the story feels secondary, or at best equal, to the language itself. In the hands of a lesser writer, this can create problems: the prose begins to feel self-indulgent, written not to illuminate any truths but to please the writer, and in the process, story itself is lost and the reader is left behind. . . . " Doesn't that criticism sound relevant in this case?
"But Canada," Dubus goes on, saving his rave and with it Ford's novel, "is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure: a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next."
I'll give you style. And character too, at least in the case of Dell's parents. The story? It's mesmerizing the way a magician is mesmerizing when he says, "I'm going to float in the air," then does, or seems to.
The absence of religion in a book is something that may not bother many readers, but I can't help noting it, because I think it is significant here. Religion isn't entirely absent from Canada, but it's a non-factor. The Parsons family lives across a Great Falls street from a Lutheran church, and Dell occasionally observes the activity and inactivity there, the way you'd notice the leaves changing color on the oak in the yard. Then, near the end, there is one added mention of Christianity. Summing up a surprise character, Dell calls him "a religious person, long saved, I imagined, watching him through the windshield's sunny glare. Somewhere would be a motorcycle. A giant TV. A bible."
These are the observations of a dismissive person—dismissive not only of religion but of anything that could give life meaning beyond the gerrymandered map we make of its events. Richard Ford's Canada is an IOU from a bankrupt culture, one that can alter its voice like a ventriloquist but one that has nothing to say, nothing to teach, nothing really to offer but words, words, words.