03 January, 2008

'The Sportswriter' - Richard Ford

The eloquence and dreamy philosophising of Independence Day had led me to seek out the two other novels that bookend Ford's trilogy of the musing Frank Bascombe. The Sportswriter, the earliest, was hailed at its release as a masterly and remarkable work, significant to the future of American literature. Which indeed it is, but it is a testament to Ford's ongoing development that the second novel is in fact superior to this earlier, worthwhile and intelligently written work.
Very early in the novel Ford displays his skill for beautiful turns of phrase: discussing his routines with his recently divorced wife he indicates he sought only "the normal applauseless life of us all". Meeting his ex-wife in a graveyard on their deceased son's birthday, she asks if he plans to re-marry. Frank immediately notes in response that he smells the chlorine of a suburban swimming pool. Rather than digress on the mental makeup of his character, this note from Ford reveals what we need to know about the character's attitude: the details he notices tell us that he will treat any relationship intellectually, immediately putting him at odds with the notion of marriage, an irony heightened by the fact that it is his estranged wife asking him the question.

Two of the key themes of the novel and Frank's musings are love and mystery. Many women feature in the novel: his ex-wife, current lover and other interests, and past girlfriends. He considers and discusses at length the "love" he feels for Vicki, his current girlfriend. This is not stomach-butterfly love, however. It is the love of having that person in his life, the love of what she would contribute and what it would mean he had achieved. There is indeed a yawning gap between the first feelings of interest for a person, and that of being truly in love, and for many of us it is difficult to pinpoint or verbalise where we lie on that spectrum. Ford is brave enough to take his protagonist there and try to locate him within that scale.

He muses as well on the difference between realism and factualism: on the one hand accepting things as they are and on the other over-analysing the circumstances leading to an event. The latter morphs into the notion of mystery, something Frank is at pains to preserve. To that end he cannot retain a college teaching position as the lecturers inevitably remove mystery from literature by dissecting and defining it. As Frank moves through a thinking man's version of Nick Hornby's About a Boy - calling up several old girlfriends for their comfort and familiarity - we realise that love - for people dead and alive, for lovers past and present, for places and possessions ordered from catalogues - is the most mysterious of entities, too shrouded to be simplified as a consequence of romance.

For all the philosophising on relationships and Frank's ability to commit to them in various guises, the attitude to women in this 20-year-old novel is not always welcome. Their arses are commented on in preference to their personalities and in relationships they can be disenfranchised, serving only Frank's purposes. It's interesting that when talking to his 83-year-old lady neighbour, he feels compelled to "watch his age", to not appear too immature, when he has just spent a weekend in Detroit comfortable in his superiority in age and education over Vicki.

Frank Bascombe is written as a man intensely aware of his relationships with men and women around him, and is a character placed irretrievably in a certain circumference on the American East Coast. His openness of philosophy, however, allows readers of diverse background, location age and of both genders to share his intellectual journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment