Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learning from Writers You Can't Read


From the early reaches of discoveries you made as a teacher comes the major awareness of how much good information and potential for learning in the reading of a work you are not on the best of terms with.

Such works give you a printout of things not to do, and as you read such works, groaning inwardly at the graceless prose or obvious devices, you are removing the potentials resident within your own prose to follow suit.  While there is more to be gained from making your own mistakes, there are positive things to be had from seeing the mistakes of others and the momentary sense of smugness at the thought that you would never do such a thing.  This smugness lasts until you catch yourself doing that very thing, taking the hit of your error, then finding ways to correct it.

This is all prologue to the fact of your ongoing difficulties with two writers of some stature, the late John Updike and Richard Ford.  You’d arrived at a grudging acceptance of many of Updike’s short stories, but could never find the motivation to finish any of the Ford you’d begun.  Because of your pal Duane Unkefer’s near madness for Ford, you’ve tried again and again, but no use.

This is by no means to say Updike and Ford are lacking skill or reach; each has considerable presence on the page.  Your objections to their work has more to do with a sense of regret in the latter and a dislike of the tone of the former.  That said, you consider each at a high level of ability to have a presence on the page.

Nevertheless, her you are, over a third of the way through Ford’s latest, Canada, and to put the matter in as few words as possible, you’re in deep.  The first-person narrator, Del Parsons, whom you reckon to be in his sixties at the time of his writing the narrative, is looking back at his mid teenage years where he and his fraternal twin sister, Berner, and their parents lived in Great Falls, Montana.  The mother was a teacher and had dreams of teaching at a small college, writing poetry, perhaps a few stories, while teaching literature. 

The father, a bombardier on a Mitchell B-25 medium bomber during World War II, emerges thanks to his son’s reconstruction of him and Ford’s relentless ability to convey, evoke, and dramatize, as a complex, likeable fuck-up of achingly accessible behavior.  In many ways, the father is the more sympathetic character in the novel, and yet, you could argue that the mother is as well, and so are the two kids.

So also are the individuals we meet for only brief moments about a hundred pages in, characters who happen to be at a small bank in South Dakota when Bev Parsons is robbing it and the mother is outside revving the engine of the getaway car.

Ford is a facile, graceful writer, and this time he not only has you, he has you reading at a slower pace than your usual wont, the better to drink in the vividness of place while at the same time considering the implications of the events, the naiveté of the young narrator, and the occasional zinger of a rhetorical question this narrator is asking of himself, through which he is also asking of the you when you here at his age and the you of your present age, just as the narrator has moved from being naïve to more complete in his formation.

From this author who you’d not been able to read before, you are immersed in the outcome of one of your favored conditions, the unthinkable, come to pass.  You are very much the hostage of a dramatic writer who has the exquisite ability to withhold information, causing you to read for the same reasons you find reading attractive.  Ford uses information as event and manages to turn event into information.

We cannot know the people in our everyday life, you believe, with any sense of certainty, a fact that means you wish to trust but cannot quite do so.  You do the next best thing.  You invent plausible characters whom, even though they may lie to you from time to time or cheat you, you are able to believe them.  This is important because you will follow them as they lead you to places were you might not have otherwise gone, and where you will learn things you might otherwise have refused to see.

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