Richard Ford, ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’

Richard Ford is one of my favourite writers. I loved the three previous Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1986 ), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). It was generally felt that Ford had done with this character, but he has now brought him back from retirement in another terrific novel. It isn’t quite up to the standard of the best – the middle one of the trilogy – or the other two, but it’s still damn good.

Richard_Ford_at_Göteborg_Book_Fair_2013_01In four loosely connected novellas Frank, now 68 and that paltry thing, an aged man —  not quite Yeats’s ‘tattered coat upon a stick’, but still fearful of falling and breaking his hip as a consequence of the giddy spells he suffers. These are caused by a problem in his neck bones, as he frequently tells us with the clinical relish of a chronic sufferer. He worries about his declining physical state a lot: Alzheimer’s, heart disease;  he notes the deterioration in his contemporaries – ex-wife Ann has moved to an expensive NJ care facility, suffering from Parkinson’s, near enough for him to feel obliged to visit regularly (one such visit is the subject of section 3). Frank is full of intimations of mortality now. He calls himself a ‘prostate “survivor’. Things are falling apart. He’s fond of quoting from a range of writers – Yeats, Richard Hugo, Roethke, and especially Emerson: ‘an infinite remoteness underlies us all’.

There are plenty of reviews out there which will provide more plot detail, so I’ll concentrate here on the distinctive Ford style, thereby I hope indicating what it is that makes this worth reading (it took me just three sittings: the font is quite large and the lines are wide-spaced).

The opening story begins with an evocative description of the devastating aftermath of hurricane Sandy on the Jersey Shore, where Frank used to live:

Strange fragrances ride the fragrant, twitchy wintry air at the Shore this morning…Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.

It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulphurous weft and Barnegat Bay’s landward stink.

Much of this reads like prose poetry: there are beautiful sound patterns, symmetries (the alliteration and near-rhymes like ‘strange fragrances’); the deftly chosen adjectives (‘twitchy wintry air’) surprise and delight (it had to be ‘wintry’, not ‘winter’; not sure why). He’s good on weather effects: he talks elsewhere of NJ’s ‘discordant skies’. There’s a pleasing mix of registers, from the lyrical, literary ‘Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea’ to the American-demotic/informal list of DIY materials in the second paragraph.

The loping first-person present-tense narrative voice takes us right into Frank’s head as he contemplates impermanence, transgressions and loss, ‘the bruise of defeat’. It usually has that mesmerising blend of relaxed vernacular and pungent philosophising. And the style has become sparer, more stripped-down, compared with the earlier trilogy; Frank has begun an ‘inventory’ of ‘polluted words’ that should ‘no longer be usable – in speech or any form’. Among his pet hates are the clichés ‘no worries’ and a well-wisher being ‘here for me’.

Often accompanying the American cultural references is Frank’s love of (multiple) compound expressions: ‘the plump-pastie Ishpeming girl’. In the Sandy-devastated shopping area of the Shore is a Home Depot ‘Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all’… These add to the novel’s distinctive vernacular, colloquial style, counterpointed by the high register abstractions and polysyllabic obscurities (alongside ‘copacetic’ he’ll have ‘She knows what it’s all about – not as great as it’s cracked up to be’ – he’s talking about masculinity, having met a transgender person.)

Set just before another holiday period, like the other three Bascombe novels, this time Christmas, each section deals with an emotionally bruising meeting with someone who causes Frank to reflect ruefully on his life, and life in general: ‘life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.’   These produce the novel’s main feature: Frank’s ongoing internal monologue. Mostly he ponders life with that sort of resigned, cagy stoicism. They are intercalated between the colloquial stream of Frank’s thoughts and observations, creating that curious hybrid style I’ve mentioned. Here are some typical examples:

…life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes…When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.

This English reader often finds these American references obscure: I’d welcome an explanation of that Chilicothe allusion; all I know is it’s a town in Ohio?

He sees himself, after the various stages of existence he’d identified in the previous trilogy, as having moved on, at 68, to ‘the Next Level of life’ – ie retirement –

conceivably the last: a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to…

The world gets smaller and more focused the longer we stay on it.

Sally, his second wife (they’ve remarried)

views life as one thing leading naturally, intriguingly on to another, whereas I look at life in terms of failures survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly –  but briefly – clear of obstructions.

Frank’s reached a stage where he’s started trying to ‘jettison’ as many friends as he can as a means of achieving ‘well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity’, before ‘the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness’. He tries to present to the world what he calls his ‘Default Self’, which represents ‘bedrock truth’ at last. Mostly he succeeds, but being Frank, he’s self-deprecating about it – and is often very funny; at one point he’s not sure if he’s thinking or actually talking, when he says the Default Self allows questions, ‘but only ones for which you want an answer – the opposite of lawyers.’ He tries to eschew cynicism, and suspects he might, after all, have a ‘mass and a character peeping reluctantly out from behind the arras like Cupid – which is not a bad outcome at all.’ And then there’s love:

Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.

001Despite this slightly weary, ruminating, introspective narrative voice, Frank is always palpably engaged in the lives of others, and the prose often soars to heights of beauty, as I hope some of my quotations demonstrate. The material world, shattered by the destructive forces of nature, mirrors his own existential state, but he comes through, more-or-less cheerfully. But the startling revelation he experiences at the end gives him pause: ‘A wound you don’t feel is not a wound.’

I sincerely hope this is not the last we hear from this battered but indomitable New Jersey survivor.

 

Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book.

Bloomsbury, 2014. 238 pp.

 

Spam poetry

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

I’ve just explored the spam filter on the dashboard of this blog for the first time; I’m amazed by some of the peculiar, poetic messages WordPress helpfully commit to the spam bin.  There’s this, for example:

Undeniably imagine that you said. Your favourite justification

seemed to be at the internet the easiest factor to be
aware of.  I say to you, I definitely get annoyed

 while other folks think about issues

 that they plainly do not recognize about.
You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as defined out the whole
thing with no need side-effects , folks can take a signal.
Will likely be again to get more. Thank you

I’ve used this configuration because it seems to me a found poem.  I rather like ‘folks can take a signal’: sounds like something out of Richard Ford.

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

‘To hit the nail upon the highest’ mashes up the cliché and reinvents it as something that sounds biblical.   The fractured syntax is reminiscent of Beckett’s dramatic prose.  The website linked to the comment is for a spamming ‘make money online’ organisation, so I presume this message was generated by some automatic random algorithm – surely corresponds, therefore, to what Breton and the surrealists advocated in all creative writing…They’d have enjoyed the internet and its infinite capacities.

Here’s another found spam piece:

As that faculty uniforms rather monotonous, fail to replicate temperament, the provincial capital some middle school students began to wear shoes on the “rivalry”, like “your shoes are the generations”, turning into a hot topic once-school exchanges. Reporter 21, learned that some students the value of a combine of air max 90 shoes up to 5,00 zero yuan.

This appears (from the link given by WordPress) to be from a Chinese website promoting sports shoes; maybe it too is mechanically translated, but like the example above it has a weirdly pleasing resonance.

Another piece that looks to be translated by machine (I’ve modified punctuation slightly):

I’m at about 203-208lbs give or take what I ate. Sick weigh tomorrow and make it specified.  Nowadays is clear working day one for me.  I hope to be down 13lbs by may possibly fifth which happens to be 5 weeks.  Somewhat over 2lbs each week, but I believe I’m able to get it done.  I’m kickboxing and zi xiu tang bee pollen pillslifting. I want to be down to 160lbs from the middle of sept, 25weeks away.

This could be an interior monologue from any number of recent novels by writers in their twenties or thirties; there’s a Joycean neologism, ‘pillslifting’, which neatly links the registers of pharmacology and physical fitness, which is presumably what this spammer peddles.

Finally, here’s an extract from what looks like a site promoting expensive shoes for women (the ones with the shiny red soles – shoes, that is, not women):

particularly binaural beats become desirable among players, businesses, and those functioning to their personal development and/or religious brain express.

The plosives in the first phrase and the loose, paratactic syntax give a satisfying whiff of Ginsberg.  There’s a hint of the cut-up technique of William Burroughs here, too.

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

I love the internet.