14 December, 2008

'Lay of the Land' - Richard Ford

The third in a trilogy of novels about the interior musings and observations of the Frank Bascombe, Lay of the Land follows the same model as the two earlier books: tracing Frank's movements over a holiday weekend - this time, Thanksgiving - involving an enormous amount of driving, a succinct amount of dialogue and a constant stream of observation, and filling in backstory about what has happened in the previous ten years.

At 55, Frank's musings now tend towards mortality and are perhaps more introverted and self-critical than in Independence Day and The Sportswriter. He has entered the 'Permanent Period', a time when a man is old enough and, hopefully, broadly experienced enough, to accept his life as it is, that few grand changes will occur between now and death: 'no fear of the future, life not ruinable, the past generalised to a pleasant pinkish blur'. His life is not without regret, but he now spends more time on rationales and hindsight.

With age also comes greater fallibility. Frank is not as healthy or robust as he was; he falls over on occasions, has mild panic attacks. While still dealing with the death of his son almost twenty years earlier, he finds himself in conversations that he handles badly - as a real estate agent, saying the right thing at the right time, always, has been one of Frank's strongest character traits.

His character traits divide neatly into two headings: those that make him arrogant, and those that make him intellectual. They wouldn't be mutually exclusive lists, however: Frank is often happy to project his intellectualism arrogantly, particularly when wooing women. Frank reflects on a particular platonic friendship in which his conversation made him 'seem as savvy as a diplomat and wise as an oracle, with total recall and a flawless sense of context...at a moment's notice completely ready to change the subject to something she was interested in, or something else I knew more about than anybody in the world.'

Where the previous two novels were lulling, like a long roadtrip taken as a passenger, in the first section of this book accompanying Frank on his litany of errands felt more akin to a dream where, despite constant pursuits, you can never reach your goal and wake up before its resolved. This initial section is highly political in theme. As in Independence Day, a genuine election features, this time George W Bush's infamous 'victory' in 2000. Frank characterises every acquaintance by their political leanings, and in this obsession it feels that perhaps too much of Ford himself has crept into his characterisation.

There are some overtly self-referential moments. Frank says 'Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist's deal and probably not as hard to do well'. Late on Thanksgiving day Franks sees a cross in the sky and considers it a sign, in the form of 'X marks the spot'. It seems a clumsy, beginnerish symbol, but Ford then lists each of the motifs he has used within the story - in case we'd missed them? Or because he, too, is in the Permanent Period and is comfortable enough as a writer to be blatant about his tools and tricks?

Of the two earlier books, The Sportswriter in particular looked at permutations of love. In Lay of the Land Frank has harder-to-resolve issues in his relationships with two wives and his children. He does, however, have this to say: 'there are ideal women in the world...For men, these are women who make you feel especially smart, that you're uniquely handsome in a way you yourself always believed you were, who bring out the best in you, by some generosity or need in themselves.' That all sounds very one way; Frank's opinion of women hasn't improved much. But then again, where he was extremely honest about his problemetic relationship with his son in Independence Day, perhaps here Ford lays men and their version of romance bare.

For a male reader of Bascombe's age, to have grown old with this series would have been revelatory and self-affirming. No aspect of his personality or his circumstance is too inconsequential for digression and description. A favourite way to relax, for example, is to settle into bed and read the Gettysburg address out loud. It's a purely personal response, but by Book 3 Frank has grown into a character too removed from my ken for me to respond as enthusiastically. I don't question Ford's achievement, however, in crafting a trilogy in which each book meticulously captures a time and place, and the themes therein, while presenting a man - already mature at the beginning - continuing to grow.

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