No writer captures the everyday wonder of human consciousness quite like the great American novelist Richard Ford, writes James Borrowdale.
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Original illustration by Sarah Wilkins.
As autumn chased summer from the sky, life fell under the spell of an incantatory potion that three main ingredients – war, birth, books – conspired to brew.
First, the war. Ukraine, and the retrograde horror – tanks, death, suffering – rolling from one country into its neighbour, which the BBC World Service piped into the air of our sensible grey hatchback as I ferried my two-year-old around quasi-rural west Auckland, seeking entertainment in the parks, petting zoos, and beaches of the city’s fringe. There seemed no way to synthesise knowledge of the latest European catastrophe with the experience of driving to visit the friendly cow who lives on a farm nearby. From the car’s speakers, testimony from traumatised survivors of war; from the backseat, my daughter in her excitement endlessly repeating the name of the lovely old beast we were on our way to see – Daisy May – to the tune of the half-dozen songs she knows.
Then, the birth. Our newest daughter – who lies against my chest as I write in bed, tiny breath whistling through her nostrils, ear against my heart – was born several days into that distant war, in the midst of the omicron invasion then rapidly ascending towards its Auckland peak. She arrived in a darkened room at Waitākere Hospital at 10.30 on a hot, blustery Thursday morning, and was home to meet her big sister that afternoon. The family completed: two perfect human replacements for the lives of my partner and myself, and the hope of decades in which to enjoy the overlap.
Lastly, the books. I began rereading Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter a month or so before the family enlargement, and soon found myself submerged, just as I had been when I first picked it up in my early twenties. Then, studiously working my way through the modern classics, I hoped vaguely that a future as a novelist awaited me, that my life then was on a trajectory opposite to that of our narrator, Frank Bascombe, who we first meet beside the grave of a son whose 13th birthday it should be, soon to be joined by his ex-wife, his once-promising career as a novelist forsaken in favour of writing sports from Haddam, New Jersey. He has introduced himself – “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter.” – and then jumped the fence from his house, which abuts the resting place of his dead son:
A spectral fog is lifting off the cemetery grass, and high up in the low atmosphere I hear the wings of geese pinging. A police car has murmured in through the gate, stopped, cut its lights and placed me under surveillance. I saw a match flare briefly inside the car, saw the policeman’s face looking at a clipboard.
Note the gentle rhythm of the prose and the undulation of thought it follows: the allusion to ghostly afterlife in the description of the natural world, the high and the low, the requisition of “murmured” to denote movement, and the transition from the present tense to the past. Strikingly, I think, we see not “the policeman looking” but his face, not the person but the isolated part of his body where his eyes happen to be, treated as an object and listed like any other. We are far, we now know, from that smoking cop’s interiority; we are inside Frank, and party only to his vision of the world.
I could go on at similar length about almost any passage across the life of Frank. I remember what a young Martin Amis called “the shock of recognition” when he first split the spine of a Saul Bellow novel: I have to read every word this writer has put to paper. And so, as a young English student, on I went through the Ford oeuvre and the following already-published Bascombe books: Independence Day, The Lay of the Land and, when it arrived in 2014, Let Me Be Frank With You.
Then, this summer, 15 years after that initial epiphany, I found myself treading, word-by-word, the same path. Unusually, the years had done nothing to lessen my admiration – how rarely do the novels of one’s formative years live as forcefully on the page as they do after that magic transference to memory, where they live as an essence even as the details of plot and character have dimmed? – and as we awaited our new arrival, and then as her postpartum existence settled through the mist of sleeplessness into concrete reality, I again barrelled my way through the life of Frank as he negotiates the end of the American century, living his life as my own expanded again around me.
The saying tells us that everyone has a book in them – to which Christopher Hitchens offered the rejoinder that in almost every case that proverbial book should remain precisely there. And for most of us it does, in the form of the first-person narrative we all tell ourselves, a story whose audience and author are one and the same, and which we amend, expand, edit, reread and excise until it is control-xed forever when the mind dies with the body. Ford invites the reader to lay that internal narrative, whose creation is simultaneously the work of consciousness and consciousness itself, beside Frank’s to compare not just experience but the experience of experience – or, how thinking feels. And that attempt at the realism of thought – or, what we can only assume is realism based on the limited sample size to which we have full access – is hopefully captured in the granular texture of the prose; it is there a first-person novel lives or dies. Frank, for me, resolutely lives.
We are set behind his eyes only as a succession of “fraught, load-bearing holidays”, years apart, bear down upon him: in The Sportswriter, it’s Easter; in Independence Day, by which time Frank has become a successful realtor, it’s the holiday of the same name; The Lay of the Land, Thanksgiving. In the four intertwined short stories that comprise Let Me Be Frank With You, Christmas beckons. And much of the action, if it can be called that, takes place on the road, Frank steadying himself with the errands and pleasures that foreshadow the festivities, or consoling himself after the sorrows each are inclined to descend to – the arguments, tears, injuries and deaths that cluster around his holidays as flies seek carrion.
New Jersey – its freeways and bypasses, its jaundiced capitalism, its landscape scarred by development – is described with relish, and the journeys through this postmodern morass are told with a soft perambulatory lyricism, almost a delight, that other narrators might feel inclined to save for the natural world. But Frank is entirely an American creation, and the New Jersey landscape speaks his vernacular. “An American would be crazy to reject such a place, since it is the most diverting and readable of landscapes, and the language is always American.” From The Sportswriter:
Six miles out, Route 33 is astream with cars, though a remnant fog from early morning has clung to the roadway as it sways and swerves toward Asbury Park. A light rain draws a soughing curtain of apple greens from the south and across the accompanying landscape, softening the edges of empty out-of-season vegetable stands, farmettes, putt-putts and cheerless Ditch Witch dealers.
From Independence Day, when Frank’s talent for observation has become alloyed with his professional eye for real estate:
“A tangy metallic fruitiness filters through the Jersey ozone – the scent of overheated motors and truck brakes on Route 1 – reaching clear back to the rolly back road where I am now passing by an opulent new pharmaceutical world headquarters… Orange and green pennants fly along the roadside: ‘Models open.’ ‘Pleasure You Can Afford!’ ‘New Jersey’s Best-Kept Secret.” But there are still long ragged heaps of bulldozered timber and stumps piled up and smoldering two hundred yards to one side, more or less where the community center will be. And a quarter mile back and beyond the far wall of third-growth hardwoods where no animal is native, a big oil-storage depot lumps up and into what’s becoming thickened and stormy air, the beacons on its two great canisters blinking a red and silver steer clear, steer clear to the circling gulls and the jumbo jets on Newark approach.’
Such vistas touch a spur to the underside of Frank’s mind, sending thoughts through what he comes to call “a small event – my death and life”. To do full justice to the whir of Frank’s mind would mean retyping the four books, whose passage reflects on the peaks and troughs of that event as further heights are scaled and depths excavated. He reminds us that life’s events – marriage, children, divorce, career change, old age and the ladder of ill health by which we may reach it, the tender emollients of love and sex – happen… and then keep happening in the second-life of the mind, where they are endlessly re-litigated in the search for meaning. We integrate the accretion of these looped tracks of thought – and lessons gleaned from them – into consciousness. “The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts,” as Marcus Aurelius observed, and for Frank, much of that hue is inked by thoughts of Ralph, grief for his dead son itself a spectral fog lifting from the pages and driving him through the epochs into which he subdivides his adult life.
“My life’s become alloyed with loss,” he observes, midway through a long-suppressed breakdown that chooses for its location a lesbian bar he finds himself killing time in the night before Thanksgiving. “Ralph, and then Ralph being dead, long ago became embedded in all my doings and behaviors.” “Death,” wrote Saul Bellow, “is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” And for Frank, at least, after embarrassing tears in front of an unsympathetic bartender and a subsequent run of misfortune, Ralph’s death finally lights the way to acceptance of life and all of its cruel and happy vicissitudes. The fog particles coalesce into icy rain, falling in Joycean cadence:
Deep in my heart space a breaking is. And as in our private moments of sexual longing, when the touch we want is far away, a groan comes out of me. ‘Oh-uhhh.’ The sour tidal whoosh the dead man exhales. ‘Oh-uhhh, Oh-uhhh.’ So long have I not accepted by practicing the quaintness of acceptance by… ‘Oh-uhhh. Oh-uhhh.’ Breath-loss clenches my belly into a rope knot, clenching, clenching in. ‘Oh, oh, ohhhhhpp.’ Yes, yes and yes. No more no’s. No more no’s. No more no’s.
Frank, it must be said, is a creature of his age – he’s a baby boomer who on occasion will refer to sex as a “boink” or a “woogle” – and all my proselytising could only induce my partner to endure a couple dozen of the 1800 or so pages the novels run to in my editions. She couldn’t care about the voluminous thoughts of Frank Bascombe, whose outward characteristics – straight, white, rich-becoming-richer, suburb-dwelling – did little to excite. This is fiction in the school of what David Foster Wallace called the Great Male Narcissists – John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer – which is to say that this is not 1800 pages of exegesis that is particularly vital in 2022, nor perhaps was it in 1986 when The Sportswriter first appeared.
But it’s not the content per se that excites – lengthy, discursive asides into the New Jersey real estate market as the curtain draws on the Reagan presidency, for example – but the fact of immersion in it. I don’t seek a manifesto when I pick up a novel. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote WH Auden; it is merely “a way of happening, a mouth.” The same, I think, can be said of fiction. Immersion in it – be it in a series of novels where nothing much happens, in which, like life, the centre is held by the person it happens to, not what happens – is a way of living, and the triumph of the Bascombe books is to engender it in this unexceptional character doing unexceptional things.
A small event, Frank says. But lives mostly are – from the outside. I composed this essay in my mind as I paced the living room, the baby in my arms tensed in a fragile sleep, a brainlessly hummed Roy Orbison song fencing her into unconsciousness, half the earth’s circumference from a world-shaking war futilely consumed as news. Frank reminds us that little our lives may be, but that from within them nothing is bigger. And that we’d do well to remember that of all the lives whose narratives touch our own.