I was on the selection committee of a bi-country "real world" book group, and one of the two books that my fellow committee members and I were determi...moreI was on the selection committee of a bi-country "real world" book group, and one of the two books that my fellow committee members and I were determined to push through the overly complicated process for picking the following year's reading list was Richard Ford's "Canada". We were so resolute, in fact, that we were willing to split off from our European counterparts if "Canada" did not make the final cut. (In fact, the group did break up, but it was over a book that we *had* to read, which proves, I suppose, that loathing a title choice is an even more powerful force that anticipating a hyped-up book; there's a moral in there somewhere if you want to find it.) I loved the The Sportswriter trilogy and the reviews for Ford's latest book were laudatory. I was sure that our book group brinkmanship would be worth it.
The novel starts off with a bang, as all the reviews will tell you. You know there's going to be a bank robbery, which is always an interesting prospect. And I liked the depiction of Dell Parsons. I have a son almost the same age, who is also a bit diffident and self-contained, but with an inner core of toughness, just like the main character. (I actually started the novel as an audio while I was walking with my son, and when Dell became obsessed with the idea of keeping bees, I snapped off my book and asked my son what he thought about having his own personal beehive; he immediately got excited, as I knew he would be.) But this novel, which I wanted to love, and was willing to fight for, turned sour for me very quickly. It was a terrible disappointment in so many ways.
I tend to write reviews mostly in response to my own experience of the world; there's a lot of great analysis here on GR, and if someone else had all ready made the points that I would make, I don't really see the need for yet another review. Some other readers loathed this book as much as I did, and we did so for the same reasons. But deeper than my dislike of Ford's dreary, self-important posturings was the major stumbling block that I just couldn't accept the basic construct that Ford sets up. It just didn't work for me on so many levels.
First: his depiction of a military family. I just knew, after listening to Ford throwing in every tired cliche of the military (the socially isolated, the rootless, the peripatetic living practically out of suitcases,etc.etc.) that the author had been in the military just long enough to think that he knew the military, and to dislike, it too. Now negative portrayals of the military, when accurate, don't bother me in the slightest; in fact, I enjoy them. But Ford doesn't understand the military, not at all. (A writer doesn't have to have been in the military to get it; Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff portrays the accelerated nesting--the koa rocker-German cuckoo clock-Polish crockery jumble of furious unpacking--the usual military experience--extremely well.) We military people tend to carry an immense amount of stuff around with us like a snail with a shell; it's what we do to prove we've been around. So...it's highly outside the norm that a military officer's family would live such a stripped-down life; during my husband's career I met just a few--a very few--people with homes like that. It's not likely, but it IS possible.( It's also, quite frankly, the way a lazy writer who really doesn't much about the military would imagine such a lifestyle to encompass.)
It is also highly unlikely that the Parsons family would be so isolated within the Air Force itself, particularly in that time and place. I understand that the family was supposed to be eccentric, even dysfunctional, and that the mother thought she was supposed to be better than everyone else, that she didn't want the kids to mix with anyone. So...I accepted--with difficulty--this far-fetched scenario, too. The moment I just couldn't buy, however, the moment when Ford's cardboard miltary family came crashing down for me was when Dell's father stated that as Air Force brats they knew nothing about the world, or where they lived, and spent too much time indoors. What? WHAT? I don't know of any military parent anywhere who would think that, or say it. It's one of the things that makes the military life bearable, what EVERY military parent says to themselves, and to the kids, that moving from base to base every few years gives the kids to see more of the world than most civilian kids ever do. So I call BS on Ford's whole negative, erroneous, stereotypical views of the military, which I believe come from his own less than positive experiences.
There's another personal reason why I don't buy Ford's book. You see, one of my uncles by marriage robbed a bank, in the same region as Montana, during the same year that "Canada" is set. It's quite a story; both my youngest aunt and my older brother, who accompanied my grandparents on their journey to clean up the mess that their daughter had made of her life, felt compelled to tell me, the last time I talked to either of them, exactly what happened according to their point of view. My aunt, the third sister, had run off with a convicted felon whom my grandparents understandably despised (my mother's family was used to drama, as my own mother had eloped with a Brother of the Catholic Church to Las Vegas, but my aunt's spouse selection was too much for even them to accept) some years before my uncle's botched attempt at armed robbery. My aunt hadn't been heard from--at all--for the better part of a decade. Social services called my grandparents up when they hauled away my uncle and my aunt fell apart. Whether she had had a true nervous breakdown (my second aunt's opinion) or was just flakey and lazy and couldn't get her act together (my mother's opinion) is moot; the point is that someone called family members right away; they just didn't walk out the door and leave the kids all alone in the house, as Dell and Berner are left alone in the book. So no, I don't think Ford's plot twist is realistic, and that (and I'm not being spoilery here since the entire novel is a flashback) Dell's mother, who isn't estranged from her family, would entrust her kids to some near stranger, or that it is likely that the police wouldn't report what was going on immediately to social services. Of course, it could happen--most anything can happen--but when a writer resorts to that feeble excuse, he's just messing with the reader, and being rather contemptuous at that. I can only say that from my own personal experience the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
So, at this point of the novel I was doing a lot of eye-rolling, when I came upon *the scene*. You might know what I mean. Thank God it's not explicit but what the hell is this creepy, totally unneccesary, totally gratuitous (view spoiler)[ depiction of incest (hide spoiler)] doing in the book? Is this Ford's attempt to be edgy? Please. It's completely forced--pretty much like the entire novel--and seems utterly out of character for Dell.
Even with all my objections-the Air Force family by way of Mars, the preposterous unlikelihood of Dell and Berner being abandoned after their parents's arrest--I could have accepted the book. Maybe. I don't know every military family in the world, and thank God, I only have one uncle who robbed a bank in 1960 in the Upper Midwest. But deep down, I don't feel that Ford respects his reader. He repeats things. Over and over and over. Dell's father is tall and bombastic. His mother is dark and "ethnic" and superior. The making of every baloney sandwich is described in excruciating detail, and every piece of laundry flaps slow-mo on the clothesline. Ford connects the dots between every theme point he's making--there's some weird blather about the differences between the United States and Canada that's especially puzzling to this American with a Canadian mother--and underscores these lines again and again so that you, dear reader, will get the grand themes that the author is supposedly wrestling with and which you are too dim to understand on your own. It's as if Ford is afraid of letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions--which might be, in fact, be ones that the author doesn't want you to draw. So no, I didn't find the book a moving allegory on life, and the sins of the parents being visited on the children, blah, blah, blah. I found it a highly artificial, schematic work, by an author who makes the mistake of confusing grimness for profundity, and portentousness for insight. And you know what? It's just plain DULL. That's the worst sin of all.
My vote for the most over-rated book of 2012.(less)
Not a bad book, but this suffers in comparison with The Woman Warrior. Same plot, but Maxine Hong Kingston makes Amy Tan's prose seem plodding and obv...moreNot a bad book, but this suffers in comparison with The Woman Warrior. Same plot, but Maxine Hong Kingston makes Amy Tan's prose seem plodding and obvious.(less)