Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

A retrospective narrator gives Ford’s fiction the feel of memoir.

Canada by Richard Ford. HarperCollins, 420 pp.

The hand of a master storyteller . . .

. . . “Canada” is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.—Andre Dubus III in his Times review

I’m reading two memoirs now, one an immersion and the other postmodern, but the book that’s riveting me is Richard Ford’s acclaimed new novel, Canada. I’m about halfway through and eagerly return to its world. I say about halfway because it’s in two big acts, and I’ve finished Part One; but there’s a tiny Part Three, maybe one more short chapter. Meaning, in other words, it’s really an epilogue, and it annoys me, when writers do that, call an epilogue an act. But that’s my problem, I guess, and may only mean I want to do it myself and annoy some irritable someone. I’ll find out, when I get there, whether Ford earns his designation. Which I doubt, fervently, in advance. Yet maybe, after all, an epilogue would make this great novel seem too much like a memoir, and act could be the correct literary term here.

That’s what struck me right off, how much like a memoir Canada is in its presentation of story. Along with Ford’s pleasing sentences, of course: their balance and his deft dashes, employed the way his narrator would use them—the classic parenthetical, sure, but also how he jogs with them at the end of sentences—and the way the man who tells the tale misuses “who” for “whom” and uses “only” in place of but. (The latter feels so true and colloquial, or at least individual and believably and unconsciously idiosyncratic.)

The narrator is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Dell Parsons, whose parents robbed a bank in North Dakota when he and his twin sister were fifteen. Ford exploits the dual narrator (Dell then, a young fifteen, and now, when he’s about sixty) to great effect. Mostly the story is told through the boy’s eyes. Ford smoothly explains how Dell knows some things by having Dell tell us his mother wrote a memoir in prison. A big difference between this novel and a memoir, so far, is we don’t get any wailing by the adult Dell of how his parents and their crime messed up his life. It’s clear it would, and did, to a point, but that’s implied. And worlds reside in that phrase “to a point,” for Dell is an individual and individuals are, in good fiction as in life, unpredictable.

What really hooked me at the start was the way Ford-as-Dell depicts and describes his parents. They are ordinary middle-class postwar people: only they are not so ordinary, like anyone when looked at closely. And Ford manages to set them in motion in your mind’s eye so you feel like you know them—or, rather, don’t know them in the same way we know-and-don’t-know anyone we meet. How we place and then imagine a person by appearance, countenance, dress, and voice. How we notice in an instant and largely unconsciously their shoes, complexion, smell. Ford has looked closely and he’s thought carefully; you feel yourself, for so many reasons, in the hands of a master.

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12 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, punctuation, REVIEW, syntax

12 responses to “Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

  1. Dear Richard, Welcome in joining me in admiration of this novel. Be advised, it’s very popular, so your stats are probably going to hit the ceiling the way mine did when I wrote my article on it in July or August. I feel, however, that you have done a lot of what I neglected to do in your analysis; I did more retelling of the story, you do more true analysis of the form and style. And I think you are spot on target about a lot of what makes this novel work. I can’t wait to read more Ford; he’s on my TBR list (and so are your posts, as always!).

    • Thank you, Victoria. I must read more by him too! This novel has really gotten under my skin. It is so real . . . What an instrument of inquiry it is. I’ll have to read your review—when I finish it; haven’t really read any reviews yet.

  2. Todd

    Ford’s prose reads so seamlessly.

    I have a question/questions about structure: What constitutes an Act in prose fiction/nonfiction? Is it a change of scene or a new series of episodes? Or is it a change to a new narrative arc?

    This also makes me think of the jump cut/ line breaks. When should they occur? I always feel as if I use them inconsistently, sometimes to split a long scene, sometimes a jump in time that still fits within the episode’s time frame. And sometimes for dramatic effect. A blank space to work as a brief cliffhanger sort of like a commercial break.

    • Hi Todd,

      Going back to Aristotle and the three-act structure he noticed: each act ends on a major and progressively bigger climax; after the second-act climax, the story must wrap up, fast, because the audience is waiting only for the outcome. For a perfect three-act movie, among many, watch Shane. First act ends with Shane taking up with the homesteader against the cattlemen; second act ends when the bad guys provoke one of the sodbusters and kill him; third act ends when Shane, whom we know had to go fight, shoots it out with the baddest of the bad guys.

      A line break is similarly a transitional device—big change of time or topic—but often used as much or more or only as an emphasizing point: many writers, and increasingly, break ongoing scenes with them, as you describe.

  3. Okay, just moved CANADA to the top of my reading pile! Thanks for the reminder, Richard! I snagged it when it came out, but then got waylaid by Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES and two review books. Can’t wait to start reading Ford! I was so impressed with the prereviews for CANADA, though, that I picked up THE LAY OF THE LAND at Half-Price Books recently to read as well. So many books, so little time. . . .

    • I know, Lanie. I’ll tell you how much I like CANADA: it took a long time to get it from the library, and then I started reading it late since I’m reading two memoirs—well, three now, as of last night—and when I tried to renew it they said I couldn’t: so many want to read it, it had a hold on it. So I bought the damn thing from Amazon. I could not not finish it!

  4. You make me laugh, Richard, when you say the epilogue/act annoys you because you might want to do the same thing yourself and maybe annoy some irritable someone… I know what you mean about wanting eagerly to return to the world of certain books–well put. Others, I find, not so much, and then I wonder why I bother to finish them. It’s great that Ford has another big, I was going to say American novel out, but hey, it’s called Canada. I think of him as a great American novelist. I read the review in the Times when it first came out and then forgot about it, so I’m glad you’ve brought it back (and so favorably) to my attention. As a memoirist you’re well qualified to comment on the novel’s memoiristic qualities. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Paulette. Having finished the novel, I see it is a last act, if only because it’s two chapters. The NYT reviewed it like three times in different formats, book review and daily newspaper, and all favorably though the rave was Andre Dubus III’s in the Sunday book review and most reflects my reading experience.

      Per its memoiristic qualities, I found it interesting that in the acknowledgements Ford credits a memoir, And When Was the Last Time You Saw Your Father?

  5. Thanks for this recommendation. I don’t read fiction often but lately I’ve been craving a good story–I may have to pick up this one. My local university in small-town Minnesota was privileged to have Richard Ford come to our reading series one year. It was a pleasure to meet him.

    • You can’t go wrong with this one, Rachael. Though I say that knowing how personal such things are—I’ve hated novels others loved and vice versa. As Ford himself has said, you don’t have to finish a book; he said he tries many and puts them down, sometimes to come back later and love one that hit him wrong the first time.

  6. Clayton Cormany

    I’m not real familiar with Ford’s work, but I did read an article he wrote about the meaning of home. It appeared in the Smithsonian magazine a few years ago. His central idea seemed to be that home is more a state of mind than a physical location. It’s a subjective, transient thing that we never completely achieve, and for that reason, we long for it all the more.

    • Thanks, Clay. That’s appropriate because this novel is about people feeling displaced and being displaced. Also Ford himself has been a rolling stone; he’s lived all over the country and now is in Maine. I admired an essay he wrote some years back about that, defending his rambling nature against all the sanctimony of “staying put.” Personally I think I am one who needed to stay put but didn’t. But then, I never wanted to leave sixth grade!