Most people who have heard about Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada, have heard about the opening lines:
First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. ... Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren't strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would've thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular -- although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.There is something about the arrangement of those words, the word choice, the voice, that draws me in like few books have since the glorious, Whitmanesque opening of Don DeLillo's Underworld:
He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.Yet in writing about an American who ends up in Canada, it is neither American nor Canadian literature to which Ford connects. Rather, it is Thomas Hardy, that early modernist, that poet who saw the end of the Victorian age, and his man who throws away his greatest treasures, gains power and returns to nothing -- Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge -- to which Ford connects.
Henchard makes a horrible decision that comes back to haunt him. It is not fate that does him in. Instead, it is his own character that leads him to make his horrible decision and, because he is more than a one-note character, leads him to realize the depth of what he has done. This self-realization is what makes his story a tragedy.
Dell Parsons writes from the vantage point of approaching retirement about the events of his 15th year. He and his twin sister, Berner, who is nothing like him in looks or temperment, live with their parents, who also are nothing alike. They are stuck in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960, a few years after their father, Bev, has retired from the Air Force.
He is a big, friendly Alabaman who isn't good at selling cars or ranches. He is even worse at trying to be the middle man in a scheme in which Indians steal cattle that is sold to a head waiter on the Great Northern Railroad. The scheme is based on one that failed at the base. And when Bev is put in the middle of this failed scheme, and needs to find some cash, fast, to make some payoffs, he decides to rob a bank.
Dell comes to believe, especially based on an incident that took place when he and his father had a chance to look at the supposed car in which Bonnie and Clyde were killed, that his father has always wanted to be a bank robber. He seized the opportunity when it came his way because of his character, not because fate dictated his robbery.
Their mother is not happy in the marriage; the couple do not fit. She is out of place wherever they live. But she does love her children. She makes certain her children are left at home, and not involved in the robbery. She also makes sure her only friend promises to spirit her children away from Great Falls in case something goes wrong.
Dell winds up under the care of that friend's brother, who removed himself to Canada years ago. This mysterious figure proves his character by choosing a path that places himself and Dell in danger. Arthur Remlinger is the ultimate discontented person, blaming others for his lack of success while railing at the system in which he does not succeed. (He reminds me of discontented white men I have met who think the world owes them success for who they are, not what they do.)
Remlinger is the character whose path could have most closely resembled Michael Henchard's journey in the Hardy novel. But Remlinger, although smart enough to attend Harvard and one often given to musing -- possibly only to listen to the sound of his own voice -- has neither the character to admit what he has done in the past nor the wisdom to know that one should not always plow straight ahead through whatever is thrown in your path. He is the type of man to drive thorugh a group of pheasants pecking at gravel on the road without even slowing down. He is the type to abhor Adlai Stevenson, want to murder union members and who doesn't like living in Canada because they "are isolated and in-grown. Not enough stimulation."
Before dragging Dell into a scheme that considers only what is acceptable to Arthur, Remlinger asks Dell if he is in despair. This is a 15-year-old who has lost the three other members of his family and gone to live alone in a foreign land. Yet Dell doesn't consider himself in despair. He knows he's not as bad off as, say, his mother.
Dell starts to wonder if he will have a purpose in Remlinger's life, if he will be Pip to Remlinger's Magwitch. He lets himself be taken up by Remlinger and his older paramour, Florence La Blanc. Later, Dell realizes he wanted Remlinger to be more meaningful:
He was not in the least an enigma. I had believed for a while that he possessed significance, a rich subtext that was more than merely factual. But he did not, ... He _wanted_ significance, there's no doubt ... But he couldn't overcome the absence that was his companion in life and that led him everywhere.In Canada, it is not Dell's character or choices that set him on his initial road. What happens to Dell as a teenager is fate, not his choice. Yet Ford harkens back to old-fashioned character study and the importance of character in that the three adults who most impact Dell are not fated to do what they do. They commit the crimes in the novel's opening paragraph not because fate gives them no choice, but because they don't give themselves other choices. (As Hardy's Henchard notes, talking about a crop but something that I think says something about consequences and character as well: "If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure. But it can't be done.")
And Dell takes what they have given him, what fate has handed him, and makes the choice to go ahead and live his own life. He cuts himself off from his past of being the child of bank robbers, cuts himself off from being thrust in the midst of someone else's drama in the middle of dying towns in Saskatchewan, and becomes someone who teaches literature with the themes of adapting, crossing a border (which Dell does not just by going to Canada but in the way he lives past the main events of the novel) and "about crossing a line and never being able to come back".
The novels Ford references are The Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, The Sheltering Sky, The Nick Adams Stories and The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is possible to trace connections between each of these novels and the characters in Ford's Canada. Henchard's story is the one that struck the deepest chord with me, and not just because it is my favorite Hardy novel. It's also because of the way that circumstances and events are dictated by character in both novels.
It also is no accident that Dell becomes a teacher of literature, a member of the profession that attempts to make sense of the world through narrative. Dell references Ruskin in the opening of his story and at its close. Early on, Ford has him say:
I read that the great critic Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. Which means it's for the composer to determine what's equal to what, and what matters more and what can be set to the side of life's hurtling passage onward.
At the end, Dell says he has spent his life encouraging his students to develop a concept of their lives, to form a narrative, if you will, to take account. (Oh Joan Didion! "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" indeed.)
He also says encourages his students "not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings -- even in the books they read -- but to look as much as possible straight at the things they can see in broad daylight. In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you'll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world."
Ford's Dell has accepted what happened to him, his sister and his parents. A few pages later, he again brings up Ruskin, who, he says, "says composition is the arrangement of unequal things". Ford's composition also throws in the idea about punishment on the preceding page. When it comes to what is equal and what is not, these characters have been punished and rewarded in measures unequal to what they have done. Their punishments and rewards are not especially connected to whether they have demonstrated the kinds of character that would merit these punishments or rewards, either. When he realizes that Remlinger was not significant, he continues to try to make connections to everything that has happened to him:
... it is all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to restore and maintain my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I've crossed. I know it's only me who makes these connections. But not to try to make them it to commit yourself to the waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair.But fate is not blamed, or credited, for who gets punished or rewarded in Ford's book about how to carry on. It is what a person is made of, the decisions that he makes in how to proceed with what is handed to him, that matters more. Canada is a meandering novel that takes a long time to get to the point, but in building up to that point, Ford's story has a hefty impact:
What I know is, you have a better chance in life -- of surviving it -- if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.