July 16, 2007
Richard Ford: The Lay of the Land
Richard Ford has impeccable taste in fiction, as we know from his introductions to UK editions of James Salter’s Light Years and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. He also enjoys greatness by association with his old friends, the late Raymond Carver and the not late (except when it comes to turning out novels) Tobias Wolff. And his last collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, was a delight. But I get the impression that what he wants to be remembered for are the Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1984), Independence Day (1995) and now The Lay of the Land. A clue to this comes in the early pages of chapter 1, where the uncommon word angstrom appears. Of course! It’s Rabbit by Richard.
And The Lay of the Land does seem more than either of the others to be Ford’s attempt to square up to Updike and give the world his own Harry Angstrom. It seems less interested in doing something new (it copies the structure of Independence Day: the detailed moment-by-moment recreation of the days approaching a public holiday – this time Thanksgiving – and a dramatic event near the end), and is content to examine Bascombe’s life with positively forensic attention.
This is not without event – Bascombe gets involved along the way in a bar brawl, a terrorist attack, and several switchbacks of his present and previous love lives – but there’s no denying that it does get at times extremely boring. It’s hard to tell whether this is deliberate – Frank after all is an estate agent and not a man given to outbursts of emotion – and at times this quality made it the ideal holiday read, as I had nothing else with me to put it down for. Ford’s prose is not the match of Updike’s, or Salter’s for that matter, and in storytelling circles Yates leaves him standing.
Nonetheless the book was not at all a difficult or reluctant read, and there are moments of brilliant observation, such as this assessment of Bascombes’ Tibetan employee, Mike Mahoney:
In this, he’s like many of our citizens, including the ones who go back to the Pilgrims: He’s armed himself with just enough information, even if it’s wrong, to make him believe that what he wants he deserves, that bafflement is a form of curiosity and that these two together form an inner strength that should let him pick all the low-hanging fruit.
This also plays into the Rabbitesque background to the book: the recounts and court challenges to the 2000 Bush/Gore election, which gives Ford a chance to put some choice anti-Bushisms in Bascombe’s mouth.
Finally, there is the inevitable impressed satisfaction of reading any book this length, that the author should have managed to sustain the performance for so long, even if we didn’t always enjoy it that much (or perhaps, as Forster once suggested, we tend to overpraise long books simply because we have got through them). Oh, and a word about that: my obsession with flagrant page-bloat has been mentioned before, but I think swelling the page count from 496 in the hardback to 726 in the paperback sets a new record. Unless of course you are even more anally retentive than I am about things like that, and know better.