June 2012

Arts & Letters

'Canada' by Richard Ford

By Christine Kenneally
'Canada' by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury; $29.99

I don’t think there’s a single moment of happiness in Richard Ford’s latest novel, Canada. Or joy, mischief or warmth. The word ‘love’ appears a lot in the first of the saga’s three parts, but it doesn’t generate much heat. And why should it? Not all lives are happy, and lots of people talk of love when they don’t know what it means.

Dell Parsons, the novel’s young narrator, feels real enough. Yet, apart from one scene of piercing sadness at the end of the book, I kept expecting to feel something other than flattened by the sad circumstances of Dell’s life. Canada begins with Dell at 15 and ends with him an old man retiring from a long-held job. Mostly, the arc of his life is punctuated by dislocation and distance: a long road from Montana to North Dakota, endless wheat fields binding Canada to the United States, the gap between who we should have been and who we really are, and the unbridgeable spaces between children and parents.

We meet Dell in the dull town of Great Falls, Montana. Actually, maybe the town isn’t so bad, but it’s not good enough for Dell’s mother Neeva, a Jewish urban intellectual turned housewife. She is in Great Falls under duress and wants her children, Dell and his sister Berner, to be influenced by the locals as little as possible. Accordingly, they have no friends and they exist in their hot dusty house as in an airless bubble.

Neeva and Bev, the children’s handsome, hapless ex-airforce father, are completely mismatched, and yet somehow Bev still loves Neeva. At least, that’s what we are told; it doesn’t look like love. It looks like they are as remote from each other as they are from the town, their children and large parts of reality.

It’s here in their inert marriage that the real trouble starts. Bev decides to rob a bank (after his small-time rustling operation goes wrong), but his deep unawareness of how he appears to other people means that not only does the robbery go wrong, it’s ridiculed in the local papers for its ineptitude. He and Neeva, who has helped him, are soon caught and jailed, and Dell and Berner spin off into the world.

Dell ends up in Canada, and there the boy who spent his childhood as mute witness to his parents’ hollow union and his father’s failures recapitulates the role over and over, first with a nasty make-up-wearing dwarfish French-Indian “half-blood”, then a hotel-owning sociopath with blood on his hands, then various others. The characters are so meticulously and vividly described by Ford, it’s a mystery how so much happens but so little is felt.

Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Ghosts of the Orphanage and is now writing a book about the orphanage experience for Public Affairs and Hachette Australia. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.

@chriskenneally

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