07 November, 2007

'Independence Day', Richard Ford

Published in 1995, Independence Day is the second in a trilogy of novels about Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter was published in 1985 and the last book, The Lay of the Land in 2005). Each can be read independently. In Independence Day, for example, Frank mentions the death of his son several times, without going into detail - this event was dealt with in the first novel.

Frank is a contemplative man. The novel runs across his experiences on the titular long weekend in the late 80s, so at 450 pages it's slow-paced, musing and reflective, spending as much time in the past filling in details as elucidating current events. Frank, now a real estate agent, spends much of the first day dealing with the Markhams, impossible customers looking for a house, a location and a price-range that doesn't exist. Here is the modern dream turned sour, the Markhams' insistence on being able to get what they want infusing a vile taste into their marriage and leading them into blame and retribution, rather than establishing a happy family home.

Over the weekend Frank interacts with three other key characters - his ex-wife, their 15-year-old son, and his current lover, Sally. Ford discusses notions of love quite tenderly through Frank's interactions with each of these characters. Frank is simultaneously aware that he still loves his ex-wife, but that it is too problematic for them to be together. Throughout the book he ponders the strength of his commitment to Sally, questioning how much true affection he can give to someone else, as distinct from merely being buoyed by his own feelings. He is desparate to spend time with his son, Paul, but is brutal in assaying how much he can love a difficult, irascible teenager.

These events are backdropped by the upcoming Presedential elections - G Bush the First is in the running against Dukakis. Knowing what's going to happen in that backstory, knowing that the world is still being bullied twenty years on, and that houses haven't become any more affordable, gives the reader a stinging insight into the veracity of Ford's words.

And they are beautifully crafted words. Ford often has a very interesting turn of phrase: he uses language correctly, but for his (or his characters') own purpose. He mixes adjectives and nouns quite a lot, for example saying 'defiance cries' rather than 'defiant'. A beautiful example is 'to swoon off into profound unconscious while the cicadas sang their songs in the silent trees'. To have used the noun, 'unconsciousness', would have unbalanced the harmony of the sentence. His commentary on 'independence', and its arbitrariness, is insightful and cutting: the monster trucks taking part in the big day's parade will be later 'crush some Japanese cars out at the Revolutionary War Battlefield'

I was lulled by this booked. Frank spends an enormous part of it driving his car and I had the feeling of being a passenger, of progressing towards a destination without having to be in control of the vehicle, and taking lots of detours, down tree-lined lanes and highways alongside panoramas, on the way there. It's a novel that trusts its reader to bring their own notion of irony, cynicism, politics and how the world works to the book, engage in dialogue with the characters, and learn something if you will.

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