Saturday, January 26, 2013

10 things I didn't like about Richard Ford's highly acclaimed Canada

Canada had amazing reviews. That’s why I read it (and because I like Canada). There’s plenty to admire about the book: it has the kind of narrative intensity - particularly at the beginning - that refuses to let you doubt its tightly constructed world. It has precisely-drawn characters, action, atmosphere, period authenticity and a Hemingway-like sparsity of prose – with not a word or phrase that a diligent subeditor could lose.

And if I hadn’t read the reviews, I probably would have appreciated it more. As it was, I kept wondering whether this really was a “masterpiece” (Mail on Sunday) or one of the “first great novels of the 21st Century” (John Banville).

Without wanting to dismiss the good points that reviewers raved about, here’s my list of ten annoying things about Canada. (And if you are planning to read it, you might not want to read on.)

1. Big fat, airport-style paperback from Bloomsbury, weighing a ton, with print too close to the centre of the book, making you choose between strained wrists and breaking the spine of the book.

2. An obsession with smells. Long sections where almost every page includes comments about what people or things smelt like. Just too many “smells”: “I could smell an odor on the man – a meaty smell and a medicine smell at the same time. After he left, I smelled it on our father.”

3. A wrenching transition between the first and second parts of the story, almost as if the first part (203 pages) wasn’t long enough to count as a novel. Maybe I was missing something, but the different world and largely disconnected story in Part Two were an unsatisfactory follow up to the gripping Part One.

4. More on that: each part revolves around a very unlikely crime, the two having no connection. The sheer unlikeliness of the central character being caught up in both stretches credibility to breaking point.

5. Gratuitous incest: an episode in Part One, with apparently no consequences. Also, there’s a male character in Part Two who wears lipstick and rouge. No explanation or effect on anything else.

6. The narrator’s voice: the story is written as the words of a boy. But as it progresses, his increasingly sophisticated commentary on the action begins to be explained as being an account of what happened as recalled in his mature years. Either perspective would work but there are times when we are caught between the two, with naïve voice and mature reflections sitting uneasily together in the same paragraph or sentence.

7. You need to know that a Quonset is a kind of pre-fab military hut.

8. The second crime is even more unlikely than the first: two men, years after a terrorist incident, seek information and perhaps revenge. The subject of their quest, we don’t know how, gets word of their mission, and, for no conceivable reason, confides the details to one of his workers. A cold-blooded murder is performed with no thought for the presumably inevitable consequences. Beautifully described, but does that make up for such a lack of plausibility?

9. Part 3 is a mere 23 pages, and is a look back from what turns out to be the present. It feels more like a ‘where are they now’ footnote than the inevitable end of the narrative. If the movie rights are bought (and I was convinced in Part One that the book is practically a film script already), this final part could be a kind of Life of Pi style framing device in which the incredible tale is told, but in the book, can you really frame from one side only?

10. Acknowledgments. Call me a fusspot, but I don’t like to find them at the end of a novel. Tolstoy managed without them in War and Peace. There’s a sense of self importance here: “certain books and certain writers, in ways both apparent and less obvious, were instrumental in writing Canada.” At least that’s at the end. Do we really need to be warned in a note before Part One, about the liberties Ford has taken with the facts, such as “Highway 32, for instance, was unpaved in 1960, although as I’ve written it, it is paved.” Well thanks for warning me!

But, as I said, all these points might not have struck me if I had been surprised by how good the book is. For instance in the first section, I enjoyed the wonderfully subtle moral drawn about the tiny difference between momentous but socially approved decisions (getting married) and momentous but disastrous ones (robbing a bank). They’re just different examples of how we write the script for our lives without knowing what we’re getting into, Ford seems to suggest.

The narrator is strangely unemotional, through provoking circumstances big and small. But we do feel as though we know him by the end, and that we’ve travelled a long way with him.

I wonder how Canadians feel about being so obviously a metaphor for escape from the more ‘real’ world of the USA?

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