Frank Bascombe’s “small life lived acceptably”

Last night, I laid down the third of Richard Ford’s novels about his suburban anti-hero with a sigh of satisfaction.  The Lay of the Land (2006) follows on from The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995).  The books not only share their narrator and central character, Frank Bascombe, and follow his life over a span of around twenty years from his thirties to his fifties, but they each do so by being structured around the events of one short period of time – the Easter weekend; America’s Independence Day in July; and Thanksgiving – but allow Bascombe not only to review, reminisce and reflect on his own life but also to document, describe and dissect suburban America as it is to be found in that fascinating state, New Jersey.

The trilogy is living and vibrant proof of the fact that it is through the selective and creative lens of fiction that that the truth is often revealed.  The effect of the three books has been heightened for me by two things: first, that I do know New Jersey after a fashion and secondly, and more importantly, that I was able to read them in sequence over the past few weeks.

It may seem a bold statement but I think it is fair to compare favourably Ford’s Bascombe’s trilogy with Proust’s magnum opus of a century earlier.  While Proust’s set of seven novels run to three thousand three hundred pages of ornate language and Ford’s trilogy takes a mere fifteen hundred pages of lyrical yet down-to-earth poetic prose, the point of the comparison is their authors’ ability to sustain the melodic line and forward momentum of the narrative while, like descant or counterpoint, exploring all the restless memories and reflective meanders that their different stories trigger in the mind of their very different narrators.

Richard Ford can take a moment – for example that period after the realtor (estate agent) Bascombe has shown off a house he is trying to sell and is driving along the network of almost identical, in their repetitiveness, New Jersey roads – to let the narrator’s mind wander.

 I love this post-showing interlude in the car […].  It’s the moment d’or which the [Jersey] Shore facilitates perfectly, offering exposure to the commercial-ethnic-residential zeitgeist of a complex republic, yet shelter from most of the ways the republic gives me the willies.  “Culture comfort,” I call this brand of specialized well-being.  And along with its sister solace, “cultural literacy”—knowing by inner gyroscope where the next McDonald’s or Borders, or the next old-fashioned Italian shoe repair or tuxedo rental or lobster dock is going to show up on the horizon – these together I consider a cornerstone of the small life lived acceptably.  I count it a good day when I can keep all things that give me the willies out of my thinking, and in their places substitute vistas I can appreciate, even unwittingly. (Lay of the Land, p. 430)

Recently, Ford spoke to a packed house at the Royal Society of Literature where his topic was ‘How novels are smart’ which was his take on the art of fiction.  As a fellow American Southerner, Ford admires the boldness of Faulkner’s decision to have the first 90 pages of The Sound and the Fury told by an idiot.  What is to admire in Faulkner and top rank novelists generally is their willingness to choose an almost incredible point of view and framework and then to develop a work of art that still manages to observe and obey these given rules.  Richard Ford’s exploration of the life and times of Frank Bascombe is a work of art in the top rank.

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