"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Friday, November 29, 2013

Independence Day by Richard Ford

My guess is that Real Estate has some strong (if also mixed) significance to a lot of Americans, particularly those around my age, who grew up roughly concurrent with the housing bubble, or those from one of the parts of the country that was changed most by the explosive development.

Both of my parents' have worked at least tangential to the real estate industry. On Sundays, we used to visit model homes just for fun, critiquing the interior design choices and picking out rooms. (I would still enjoy it if my more urban and environmentally-minded partner didn't find tract housing sort of reprehensible.) I'm at a point in my life now where home ownership is, for the first time, a possibility.

So I'm well-poised to find a story about a real-estate agent pretty compelling.

Independence Day is the second in a series of three novels about Frank Bascombe, a one-time sportswriter, now real-estate agent in the fictional Haddam, New Jersey. Frank is divorced, with two children: a troubled teenage son and a younger daughter. Another son died long before the events of this novel. He's divorced, and his wife has remarried, though he lives alone. He's in the middle of what he calls The Existence Period, a sort of float-with-the-tide attitude characterized by a willful avoidance of his own emotional needs.

Over several days leading up to the fourth of July, Frank shows some homes to a couple from Vermont, checks in on a rental property of his own, visits his girlfriend, and then picks up his son for a road trip to the basketball and baseball halls of fame. And that is, basically, the plot.

Suburban middle class white life is a well worn subject of fiction, and it tends to follow a few predictable paths. The first and most obvious is to use the 'burbs as a subject for satire, an object with which to poke fun at our materialism, small-mindedness, cultural sterility, and conformity.

The second is some ways the first's opposite: to treat domesticity as deeply meaningful, and elevate the sorts of everyday activities of most of our lives (cf. Toni Morrison's directive to "mystify the familiar"). I'm sure you know what I'm talking about here--stories where backyard trees will glisten with dew and the wind will billow sheets on the clothesline. Much will be implied.

But Independence Day charts a middle path, and tries to paint everyday life neither larger nor smaller than it actually is. It doesn't denigrate our boring lives, but it also doesn't pretend as though they're more meaningful than they are. This is one of things I found most admirable and also impressive about the book. Frank's life is modest and a little alienated, and the book doesn't treat modesty as a either a sin or a virtue.

It does this on the sentence level. Where another writer might be ironic or poetic, Ford is chatty, almost rambling. Which isn't to say that the writing is plain. The sentences are fabulous. It's maybe overly aphoristic, but the advice and adages are particular to the character, and you get into the rhythm so that it doesn't matter much. Here's a representative sample taken more-or-less at random:

"My own view is that the realty dreads (which is what the Markhams have, pure and simple) originate not in actual house buying, which could just as easily be one of life's most hopeful optional experiences; or even in the fear of losing money, which is not unique to realty; but in the cold, unwelcome, built-in-America realization that we're just like the other shmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mold. And as we come nearer the moment of closing--when the deal's sealed and written down in a book in the courthouse--what we sense is that we're being tucked even deeper, more anonymously, into the weave of culture, and it's even less likely we'll make it to Kitzbuhel. What we all want, of course, is all out best options left open as long a possible; we want not to have taken any obvious turns, but also not to have misread the correct turn the way some other boy-o would."

I should just let that stand on its own. But notice not only the content (which seems pretty solid to me), but also how long and careful those sentences are. In his Paris Review interview from around the time Independence Day was published, Ford described his writing like this,

"Sometimes I’ll write a sentence that sets up an opportunity for say, a direct object or predicate adjective and I won’t have a clue what the word is except that I know what I don’t want—the conventional word: the night grew dark. I don’t want dark. I might, though, want a word that has four syllables and a long a sound in it. Maybe it’ll mean dark, or maybe it’ll take a new direction. I’ll have some kind of inchoate metrical model in my mind." 

And I think you can see that approach in the quoted section above. It's careful but also casual and approachable. It stays interesting by introducing variation to the structural level, rather than the word-choice level.

I really like it.

This is an earnest book. It's only occasionally ironic. I can see a few things about Frank that he can't see about himself, but not many. The book and character are good-faith representations.

Towards the very end of the book, Frank begins to move towards permanence. He even predicts an upcoming "Permanence Period" to mirror his Existence Period.

"...that long, stretching-out time when my dreams would have mystery like any ordinary person's; when whatever I do or say, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world -- if it makes note at all -- knows of me."

But I don't know if I think he will change much. He's haunted by the death of his son. He still seems to love his ex-wife. His son (the living one), who has plans to come and stay with Frank in Haddam, may shake him out of his ego and funk, if only out of necessity, but who knows.

There is, at least, a third book where I could find out.

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