“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”–Henry David Thoreau

Have you read the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Ford’s books The Sportswriter, Independence Day, or Women with Men (Three Stories)?  I haven’t.  And it’s a shortcoming I intend to rectify as soon as I can.  Sounds lame, doesn’t it, to start an article with what I haven’t read, and a promise to do better next time?  But perhaps you’d feel inclined to bear with me if I tell you that my sudden determination to read this fine writer comes from the encounter with my reading self (for that’s what this reading experience is, an encounter with the parts of oneself that read as much as with the text).  And the book he has written which calls into account my reading self is his new book, Canada (2012).

Though the book has this simple title, a good part of it is about the life and development (suddenly broken into by the crime of his parents) of an American boy, Dell Parsons, who lives in Great Falls, Montana in the Upper Northwestern United States.  The title may lead you to expect a sort of travelogue adventure, but unless you are prepared for the parallel trip through an interior space of mind, heart, and soul as it is taken by a teenage boy, then your expectations count for nought.  Dell’s growing up is a transmutation of materials in the human psyche basically reserved for gentle, slow changes, but in him they are propelled into a violent growth of his awareness of adults and of people in general.  Since he has lived the earlier years of his life secluded within his nuclear family (two parents, two children), travelling from army base to army base for his father’s job and making no friends, Dell is as close as can be imagined to a societal tabula rasa or “blank slate,” upon which something is to be written.  And his parents’ robbing of a bank and the later interaction with a mysterious Canadian who takes care of him when his parents go to jail jolt Dell into various interactions with the small number of people around him (and a few strangers); Dell learns some life lessons from these confrontations, and articulates them in the strangely adult voice of a young man who has been forced to grow up sooner than he is comfortable with, longing as he does for a regular school to go to, friends to play chess with, normal social interactions.  Even his twin sister, Berner, does not provide him with the closeness we feel him so desperately needing.

One of the most shocking things about the story is the very ordinariness of the characters.  Dell’s average parents decide to rob a bank to settle a debt threatening his father and the family, and threatening them not with foreclosure or shortage of supplies but with death if they don’t comply.  Dell tries to account for this strange action of his parents by attempting to figure out how they must’ve been other than the people he always imagined them to be, in fact to align them in his mind more satisfactorily with what becomes their new “fate.”  For that’s what one of the subjects of the book is, and not in any high-flown literary sense, but in a perfectly ordinary everyday sense:  what fate can be said to be when one didn’t see or feel it coming, even intuitively.

Over time, as Dell ponders and then puts out of his mind this original life-changing event, he learns to adjust his thinking to accomodate his parents’ change.  By then, he is up in Canada, having been whisked to safety from out of the hands of the U. S. juvenile authorities by a friend of his mother’s, who sends him to be taken care of by her own brother, Arthur Remlinger, the naturalized Canadian (originally from the U. S.) who gives him a job and largely ignores him until his own twisted plans for the boy mature.  Dell is precipitated into further strange events by Remlinger’s actions, and these events are the source of much of the life philosophy articulated in the voice of the older Dell near the end of the book, which he tries to pass onto his students without revealing the events in his own life which have led to this philosophy.  In an unusual gambit for someone addicted to reading and chess, Dell finally decides that there are few hidden meanings in life, that what is real is what one experiences outright.  This is what forces the reader into a conflict with his/her reading self:  the subject is not just how we read literature, but how we read life.  As a corollary of this theory of obviousness, Dell articulates what has by the end become one of the main themes of the book:  “Remlinger had told the truth when he said I would learn something valuable.  I learned that things made only of words and thoughts can become physical acts.”

In the lit. biz., these sorts of “words and thoughts” are known as “performative words” by some (like marriage vows), as “speech acts” by others.  But Dell’s “words and thoughts,” those foisted upon him by other people intent upon their own lives and seeing him only as a child to be discounted or used as the case commands, are more direct than marriage vows in that Dell is forced to take part in their fulfillment when he wasn’t party to their making.

I hope I haven’t made this book sound terribly dry with my own philosophizing and interpretation, for it is anything but dry.  It is 420 pages long in hardback, but I was able to read it in one week by setting aside about 1 1/2 hours a day for it, usually in the evening, or even breaking up the time over the course of a day.  It “reads” very fast.  None of the topics I’ve discussed here appear in the book overtly in the sense that the language is kept to the simple language that might be expected to be understood by an articulate if naive teenager; the understanding, it gradually becomes obvious, is that of the perspective of an older man.  Some of the time, there is comparison of how things have changed societally and politically in the U. S. and Canada since 1960 or so, how the mundane lives of the characters have been impacted by national events.  But this doesn’t become preachy or obscure, only matter-of-fact.  As well, Dell (and later on, Dell and other characters) discuss and debate how much and whether the U. S. and Canada are different, and this topic is one which is left to be judged by the reader (Ford produces the usual mention of his research books on the topic at the end of the book).

So, if you’re looking for more than just that ephemeral summer beach read, and want a book which will provide you with material to think about in the privacy of your own reading self (or in company discussion with your friends, the choice is yours), give this one a whirl.  I can almost promise you that you won’t be disappointed, unless you are very hard to please indeed.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”–Henry David Thoreau

  1. Thank you for this wonderful review, Victoria. Having just finished Canada, I am hungry to read about it, and can also say that your post deftly explains the book without giving too much away. Having read a few novels lately that were, for me, duds, I was astounded by how Ford drew me in. I’ll have to read it at least once more to hope to see his methods clearly, but I can say that the voice you discuss, Dell’s as a young fifteen and as a wary man of 66, are a key. His perspective is so low key but so telling, and it resonates because we all have perceptions, feelings, and puzzles all mixed up sometimes. His parents are made very real to me, also his ouchy sister, a real accomplishment. And Dell is likable without trying to be. The story itself is both dramatic as hell and rather simple, in the sense that it’s not unduly heightened, or doesn’t seem so. The phase where is up in Canada and at the mercy of strange men is so David Lynch spooky and yet real. What an artistic achievement!

    • Synchronicity is the word of the day for me today, Richard! Not only did I get a reply to a post by e-mail from a Canadian acquaintance, and wrote a shorter post than usual today about dreams, which features a remark Ford made about writing and dreams, but I got this very thoughtful, intelligent, and responsive comment from you which brings Canada and Ford into conjunction with each other again! Ford is one of those writers whom a lot of women might neglect because they would think of him as a man’s writer, in the same way that some men won’t read what they think of as “chick lit,” but having survived Hemingway, I decided to give Ford a go, and was well-rewarded, not only by the sheer grace and quality of his prose, but of what he taught me about terseness. I don’t say I can do it myself, but I feel I can at least appreciate it. I really enjoy hearing from you, and I totally agree with you about Dell. He’s more sympathetic than Holden Caulfield, and not unlike Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in his manner of learning from watching adults.

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