Tuesday, July 24, 2012

New Fiction: Canada

Canada by Richard Ford

Richard Ford was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize some years ago for his novel Independence Day. Canada may be the best novel he has written in his distinguished career. The terrible events the narrator Dell Parsons relates and the extraordinary narrative voice in which he tells them make this a heart-rending story. We understand from the beginning that the narrator is relating these events at some remove in time (we later learn that he is now a 60-year-old teacher), telling us about his life-changing experiences as a 15-year-old boy in Great Falls, Montana and Saskatchewan in the summer and fall of 1960. We accept then, what is a more articulate voice than we would perhaps find in the speech of a 15-year-old, but this narrative device alone is not what makes the novel affecting. The older narrator is able to tell his story in a way that we instinctively feel--whatever the art and sophistication of the prose--is absolutely in sympathy with the experience and understanding of his younger self. We find in the narration the immediacy of all the innocence, confusion, and struggle for understanding he experiences as events unfold. One of the things that for some reason it seems hardest to do in contemporary fiction is pace and narrate the events in a novel in a way that satisfies some internal reference or expectation we seem to have of what might be described as the proper “narrative arc,” the line described by the sequence and pace at which the story and its themes unfold. Canada has a nearly perfect story arc, and that’s one of the great virtues and satisfying pleasures of this novel.

Canada begins in Dell’s voice, “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” We are immediately drawn in. In the course of his narrative Dell tries to figure out how you can anticipate and know what goes on in the mind of others, even those we think we most intimately know and who love us, how you might be able to predict or subsequently understand their behavior. Dell and his sister, Berner, are fraternal twins. The robbery committed by their parents changes their young lives suddenly and irrevocably. There are borders crossed that cannot be re-crossed, events that are permanent and unalterable, and this is part of what is represented by Dell’s flight from Great Falls to Canada. The small rural town in Saskatchewan in which he finds himself is a kind of existential landscape. Canada also serves as a vantage point from which to view things about the nature of American culture. Yet ultimately this is not a book about the causes of misfortune or an exegesis of evil. For Dell, the reasons for the crimes of his parents, and the darker crimes to which he is a witness and unwilling participant in Canada, remain mysterious and irreducible. Evil and the ordinary are separated by a fine line, and the reasons why the border is sometimes crossed, for all the speculation and surmise in which we feel compelled to indulge, remain unknowable. We cannot read in the faces of strangers or even those we think we know most intimately their particular predisposition to the acts they take. The things that happen to Dell happen in a chaotic and arbitrary manner, as visitations of a fate not foreshadowed.

Dell as a character engages our sympathy and concern, and becomes in some measure heroic to us, not because in the face of unexpected reversal he is clever or learns to become prescient in avoiding other blows of fate (as if the evil and sorrows of the world could be navigated that way) but because of a certain resilience of temperament, the belief he never seems to lose that there remains a life of his own that awaits him and that he can claim. It might just be a good one. He goes on, he endures, because he can find some accommodation with the past that enables him to free himself of its weight and pull on his young life. We don’t know why he has this sustaining outlook on life. Its possession is as inexplicable as the erratic actions of his parents or other adults. His sister didn’t have it, and her life took a more divergent and troubled course than Dell’s. We learn more about that in the concluding and perhaps most affecting chapters of the novel when Dell and his sister meet again for the last time. Some of us have the ability to survive the damage done to us and others do not. In Canada, that ability seems in the end to be as random a dispensation as trouble and as much a cast of chance as happiness. This sense of the world calls forth our deepest sympathies and makes this a moving and memorable novel.

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