I've just completed Richard Ford's Pulitzer Prize-winning `Independence Day', and I have to admit it left me a bit cold. The novel forms the middle part of a trilogy of large-ish books (beginning with `The Sportswriter' and ending with `The Lay of the Land') narrated by a notionally ordinary American suburbanite, Frank Bascombe, a divorced former novelist turned real estate salesman (known in the US as `Realtor'). For the large part of the novel I felt disadvantaged for not having started with the earlier novel, as I struggled to get to grips with Bascombe. Through his incredibly lucid and articulate eye, Bascombe is a chronicler of Anywhere, USA, in a way that bears comparison to Updike's Rabbit series. But even if Bascombe is a first person to Rabbit's unruly third, he is in many ways a less knowable character - very much attuned to his surroundings, an astute observer.
In an interview with Richard Ford, Phil Hogan of The Guardian summarized the novels as:
"... structural siblings, in that each covers a day or two in the company of an ordinary man with things to do .... But he's not that ordinary and it's via Frank's ultra-attuned musings - on passing minutiae, on the road ahead, on the struggle of every man to transcend his own anxious circumstances - that the deluge of America itself pours in and expands the book's purpose to bursting point".
I agree with this, but I'm not entirely convinced by Ford's assertion in the same interview that:
"... people have rich interior lives. People have possibilities that we don't, on the basis of convention, ever accord to them. Who are we to say someone who works on the railroad isn't going to have a rich interior life? That seems to me to be cynical about human beings".
Yes, the interior life is rich, but Bascombe's - failed writer or not - seems so hyper-articulate, so authorial, that it expands moments into page-long treatises. Translating the inner life to page probably shouldn't read like 'Independence Day', and I felt that the novel's exhaustive precision lacked the kind of abstraction that can give first person narratives their veracity. Sometimes Bascombe's rather hyperverbal self-analysis reads more like the musings of a shrink than `ordinary joe', which might have been more potent if we were given license to distrust what he says. For example, he is incredibly frank about his role in the world:
"... after my former life came to a sudden end and I suffered what must've been a kind of `psychic detachment' ... I had been uneasily aware that I had never done much in my life that was honestly good except for myself and my loved ones (and not all of them would agree with that) ... I'd probably contributed as little to the commonweal as it was possible for a busy man to contribute without being plain evil".
In passages such as this Bascombe is the opposite of the unreliable narrator, there is no reading to be made between the lines. It sounds, intentionally I imagine, as if he has reached some stark conclusions about himself, which - although very negative - don't invite revision. By contrast, Ford asserts that:
"If Frank were a person, and you met him, and he sold you a house, he wouldn't seem like this guy on the page. He would seem like a totally embedded, insignificant character."
It seems that by emphasizing his normalcy, Ford ignores the fact that Bascombe must be a relatively detached person, very much on the outside looking in. Frank's girlfriend in the novel, Sally, seems to have a better measure of the man, describing him as "the most cynical man in the world", "too smooth" and "non-committal", all sentiments that could be shared by the reader. Ford continues,
"Frank Bascombe is not there to be approved of, or to be found always consistent - since none of us is - but to be provocative or persuasive, to please you with his felicities and inquiring mind."
I agree that people are not particularly consistent, but it strikes as rather convenient that Bascombe's slippery nature should be accounted for in this manner. Bascombe is indeed particularly cynical for a man who sells real estate, a subject which the narrator dissects with compelling clarity:
"the realty dreads ... 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 another schmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mold".
Badcombe speaks about his profession as if he were an academic on the subject, not just someone who fell into it after the disintegration of his writing career. At one point he finds a client, Joe Markham, in a state of depression:
"Joe may be verging on a major disorientation here - a legitimate rent in the cloth. This actually appears n text-books: Client abruptly begins to see the world in some entirely new way he feels certain, had he only seen it earlier, would've directed him down a path of vastly greater happiness - only (and this, of course, is the insane part) he inexplicably senses that way's still open to him ..."
Thus Bascombe is not really the ordinary guy Ford wants us to believe in, but rather a writer forced into existence as an ordinary guy. But if Bascombe's perceptive skills really belong to him, not the author, then you would think this interior self would be more frustrated than it is. Indeed for a man who refers to his unworried drifting into middle age as the `Existence Period', Bascombe is highly self-aware and doesn't appear to lie to himself. His struggles with his ex-wife, girlfriend and son are not intermingled with any grand delusions about his abilities as a father ("fatherhood by itself doesn't provide wisdom worth imparting") or a partner.
It is my unsubstantiated suspicion that American writers (from Roth to Updike and DeLillo) are normally better at addressing modern life that their British counterparts when because they don't distinguish between literary and non-literary subjects. Many British writers avoid the everyday because the everyday is not considered as worthy a subject as more important historical periods. However, when James Kellman won the Booker for `How Late it was, how late', it was branded as a disgrace by one of its own judges, mostly it seems because it contained a lot of swearing. The conservative publishing establishment couldn't accept that a book written in the interior voice of a Glaswegian drunk was deemed a worthy literary subject. I can't help but feel that Independence Day, while often illuminating, rather fails to create the kind of authentic inner-voice that made `How Late it Was, How Late' (for example) a masterpiece. A little too arch for my liking `Independence Day' is a nevertheless strikingly written and vivid account of modern (late 80s) America.