Friday, 23 January 2015

Canada

Canada is a long novel - 511 pages - but in some respects it's two shorter novels and a postscript. Part One could certainly have been a book in itself, though getting the fuller life perspective is obviously what Ford is after by moving the story forward into Canada from Great Falls, Montana, where the first section takes place, to what happens next and thereafter. To make this a little clearer: Part One - 15 year old Dell Parsons and his immediate family before his parents unexpectedly decide to rob a bank and ruin their lives. Part Two - the same year and the next few months, now in rural and abandoned Saskatchewan, Canada. Dell, on his own, and in bad company through the misguided from-jail-plans of his mother. Part Three - sixty year-old Dell Parson, seeking out his sister before her upcoming death, thinking about his life since the days of his youth.

There's nothing in this plot summary that gives too much away, because Ford uses the narrative foretelling technique to let the reader know exactly what's coming; the trick is the way he tells the story. It's not so much that in letting you know about the bank robbery, for example, he is indicating anything about fate as such (though all will be determined by the day). It's more that getting the event 'out there' allows him to slow down the pace of the story telling and take the reader into the lives of the characters making bad decisions and preparing for these as slowly as anyone does in life.

As an Australian reader, it's hard to exactly place the tone. When we say 'laconic', we mean something else; matter-of-fact doesn't quite do the trick, either. Perhaps it's the voice of the fifteen year old here that allows Ford to describe criminality in a way that neither glamorises mistakes nor condemns them out of hand: he keeps the reader between childhood and adult views as successfully as anyone using this technique, and therein lines the success of both the narrative tension and the character sympathy.

I've read a few other Ford books now, though I am yet to tackle Independence Day. I read and enjoyed The Ultimate Good Luck (Harry Quinn in Mexico, in trouble with drug dealers); Hope Springs ('stories of ordinary men and women ... on the way back to prison, marriages in tatters ...'); and The Sportswriter (Frank Bascombe, once-fiction writer, now sports journalist grafter). These stories take a certain amount of patience by nature of their subject matter, but they get at something I can only dream of achieving in my own writing: the truths of everyday experience, written in everyday language but with very fine crafting and finesse. I enjoyed Canada and read it quite quickly, as I have other novels and short stories by Richard Ford. It's a sad picture really, one of survival of childhood and a certain straightforwardness of outlook despite grim moments at a crucial time of adolescence when ordinary parental foibles are enough for most of us to live through, and make sense of later in life.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey has written some challenging novels over the years - novels that require perseverance on the part of the reader, even though reviewers continue to talk about their ability to 'dazzle'. This reader is an unabashed fan of Carey, and so it was very unusual for me not to push myself a little and finish the novel. Indeed, I was half way through and more-or-less gave up and the hardback sat on the shelf for perhaps two years; in December I reorganised my bookshelves to include a section (indeed, a bookshelf) of unfinished readings. Parrot and Oliver in America emerged as one I definitely wanted to finish, and so, onto the second half!

I don't know if it was the Christmas spirit, but I thoroughly enjoying my second attempt. Fearing I would get shipwrecked a second time, I picked up from where I left off, and although I was initially a bit confused about the characters (particularly Parrot) I was quickly engaged in their American travels. Some familiar themes emerged from other Carey novels: deluded and yet wonderful Romance (French aristocrat Olivier falls for homespun American beauty) - compare Oscar and Lucinda; Herbert and Phoebe; Catherine and Matthew. Stories of masters and servants, and the relations between classes (Olivier and Parrot) - compare Jack Maggs, The True History of the Kelly Gang. Tucked into Parrot's reminiscences were convict tales and NSW scenes. In this sense, the Australian themes emerged more authentically in this American novel than in The Chemistry of Tears, a really British (and European) tale. The arts and the artist (Watkins) - compare Butcher Bones in Theft. The search for an authentic self and the need to tell the tale - this is probably an overriding Carey metanarrative - and it's here as well. Both Parrot and Olivier offer their perspectives, and while the love story of Olivier makes him a more sympathetic character in the second half of the novel, Parrot proves the more adaptable of the two, and his change of identity and station is for the better. That is, Parrot finds an American-self where Olivier cannot; perhaps Carey's sympathies for the underdog find a sort of American resolution here, impossible in Illywhacker, for example.

The joy of reading Carey is at the level of utterance, and the command of language that so suits the eccentric characters he brings to life. Just to take one example, a moment where Olivier sees himself (mistakenly) capable of rebellion against his own class (or the assumptions of that class, embodied in his mother):

'In my sleep everyone is speaking French,' [Amelia said].
It was then, before we reached the long curving drive into Old Farm, that I imagined my mother as she heard my beloved's way of speaking. As we opened the wide gate to the property, I pinched my mother's arm and watched her outraged eyes' (p.393).

The fact is, Olivier can do no such thing. Instead, he becomes a bedraggled creature after being ejected from Old Farm, and 'saved' by the hospitality of his former servant/assistant, Parrot - who has in the meantime, become a commercial agent of the fine arts. All this is typical Carey in the best sense, and my only regret is that I didn't tackle the whole book in one go, as it so thoroughly deserves.