September 18, 2012

Independence Day (#83)

Independence Day by Richard Ford

What I said then:

The continuing travails of a grumbling bastard, first met in The Sportswriter.

What I say now:

Richard Ford writes intricate, poetic novels that are critically acclaimed, and that are frequently prize-winners, and that I really just don't like very much.

It was years ago that I read The Sportswriter, the first in Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy, and I remember virtually nothing about it. The faint ghost of that book did, however, give me a peculiar sense of dread whenever I'd look at my list and see that Independence Day (Bascombe #2) was still on my shelves, waiting for me. It wasn't as horrible a reading experience as I was expecting, but I can now say with absolute certainty that Richard Ford's novels just aren't my cup of tea.

In Independence Day, Frank Bascombe, divorced former sports journalist, is now working as a real estate agent in small town New Jersey. Over the course of the 4th of July weekend, he nearly sells a house to a pair of schmucks, he falls out and then back in with a woman he's been seeing for a while, and he and his wayward teenage son take a roadtrip to visit the basketball and baseball hall of fames. And every step of that incredibly slight plot is described in minute (almost excruciatingly minute) detail.

The main issue I have with the way Ford writes is that he's too caught up in his quest to write lovely 'poetic' sentences ('poetic' in this context meaning 'meandering, slightly obtuse, and utilising unusual vocabulary choices). Character, plot, meaning --- Ford is willing to sacrifice all of those in search of pretty combinations of words. I just can't dig a writer like that. Maybe the most egregious example of what I'm talking about is that Independence Day is written in the first person, from the point of view of a fairly ordinary real estate agent. Yet Frank Bascombe, our main character, has an interior monologue that would put most published poets to shame for linguistic ingenuity. It's supposed to be a realist novel but nobody in the world thinks or talks the way Ford has Bascombe think and talk. And as such, I found it impossible to believe in the character. I never was able to imagine Bascombe as a real man; he was always too artificial a construct.

The other thing I found infuriating was Bascombe's wishy-washiness. In pretty much any given chapter, after an achingly detailed thought process, he'll come to some dramatic conclusion about life and living ... only to re-think one or two chapters later, and come to the opposite conclusion. I don't have any problem with that per se, it's kind of realistic and speaks to something fallible and uncertain about us puny humans. But Ford did it again and again, until Bascombe seemed like nothing so much as a weather-vane, swinging in the breeze. When, at the novel's close, he comes to a series of (what I'm sure I'm supposed to believe are) giant, life-shaking conclusions, it's impossible to give a damn, seeing as I've been conditioned by the novel to expect he'll just change his mind again in twenty minutes time. If none of his thoughts ever actually matter, they never actually matter, y'know? So ... why am I reading this book again?

As I said at the top, Richard Ford is one of the most respected, well-reviewed American novelists working today. Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize, for god's sake. I just think he kind of sucks, and I'm glad that I'll never read another of his books ever again.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft
books to go: 82