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

From the front page

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Peter Norman, Tommie Smith & John Carlos

Cronulla Beach, Australia Day 2010. © James Brickwood/Fairfax Syndication

The Shire versus Australia

How a new show is creating drama

Nicola Roxon, 2012. © Julian Kingma

The Protector: Nicola Roxon

Rupert Murdoch after facing the Leveson inquiry, 26 April 2012. © Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Murdoch & Company

Rupert is finally reaping what he sowed


More in Arts & Letters

Robert Fielding, Western Arrernte and Yankunytjatjara peoples, ‘Graveyards In Between’, 2017

Standing and ceremony: The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial

Themed around ‘Ceremony’, the NGA exhibition provides a moving examination of what it means to be Indigenous in 2022

Image of James Joyce and publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris

The consecration: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

A century after its publication, the difficult reputation of Joyce’s seminal novel has overshadowed its pleasures

Image of Tom Cruise, circa 1980

Sixty business: Tom Cruise

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ hits screens as its ruthlessly career-oriented star turns 60

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist


More in Noted

Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’

‘Trespasses’

The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption


Online exclusives

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Composite image of Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Two sides of the same Shields?

Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media