Richard Ford focuses on self-justification in new novel Canada

There's a wisdom and perspective to Richard Ford's novels, a sign of a veteran writer going from strength to strength. The defiant grace of the journey undertaken in this book serves to underline this.

The flat prairies of Saskatchewan are a symbol of self-reinvention and true independence. Getty Images / Flickr RM
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Richard Ford’s seventh novel is, among other things, an exercise in suspense. We know what’s going to happen from the opening sentences – “first I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later” – what’s intriguing is how we get there. It is Ford’s mastery, the searingly honest yet tender characterisation, which make the inexorable events seem less and less likely to occur as the narrative progresses, so that when they do they are as shocking as if we had not been prepared. As the narrator and son of the bank robbers, Dell Parsons says “I’m intrigued by how ordinary behaviour exists so close beside its opposite” and it is in this uncanny, liminal space that the novel unfolds. Indeed, the bank is robbed to preserve Dell’s family life in the small prairie town of Great Falls, Montana, the normality we grow accustomed to as he describes it; this is not a Bonnie and Clyde-style escape fantasy or tale of glamorous criminality but a tragedy of catastrophe resulting from the minor flaw. Dell gives us the analogy of a long mathematical proof “in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense”.

Canada is a novel of acute observation – something Dell is admonished to practise by his father – and of facing the truth of what you see, however difficult. Even literary inference, usually decorative or imaginative, is turned towards describing the truth with precision.

Time and again an analogy is revealed to be the case. Take Dell's facial description of his young mother: "She already had 'serious lines' beside her nose, which was pinkish at the tip, and her large, penetrating grey-green eyes had dusky lids that made her seem foreign and slightly sad and dissatisfied, which she was. That which could be taken for mere appearance is, time after time, confirmed as the case; no detail seems or implies without a tragic inevitability, so that it is not a case of looking below the surface for the truth, but accepting the difficult truth the surface displays. All Dell's extensive contemplation of his mother circles this paradox ... Her visible disposition – (sceptical, sharp-witted, self-defending, frequently distant) – had always seemed to be involved in everything she thought or said, as if her appearance created her whole self. This may be true of anyone." He dwells less on his father, Bev, a mercurial ex-airman with film star good looks and Southern charm. Bev has his own issues; discharged from the air force, he can't quite make a go of things as a car salesman and his wife's family have never approved of their marriage. But he remains an oddly appealing figure; a liability who lacks the reason to project his actions forwards has a certain anti-heroic charm. It is Dell's mother who goes along with the lunacy, who facilitates his crime when she ought to have been Marge to his Homer, which is problematic for Dell years later. At times the prose epitomises a sleepless night chewing over the same problem and is all the better for it.

The only inversion of the inevitable is that Dell’s parents do not seem like bank robbers but, ultimately, we are given to accept that nobody does until they rob a bank. The universal and unsettling truth here is that we can justify almost anything to ourselves. As far as Bev is concerned, he is robbing a bank to protect his family – the money doesn’t technically belong to anyone, “and since, again, he didn’t consider himself the type of person to commit an armed robbery, actually committing one didn’t immediately change his opinion of himself, and possibly didn’t right up to the moment detectives came to our house”. In fact, the reason for Bev’s financial trouble in the first place is that he has been trading illegal beef for years, from cattle rustled by Native Americans. This is a smaller but still significant crime, and one Bev is somehow able to see as victimless – a fatal detachment. In Dell this manifests as a determination to avoid self-deception, to remain clear-sighted on all matters. It is poignant when he reflects on his father that “in truth, we were never very close, although I loved him as if we were”.

To underline the distinctions between this odd couple, their children are male and female twins. Dell’s sister, Berner, serves to highlight his immaturity. Both 15, Berner is a young woman with an inappropriate boyfriend and an attitude; where Dell is childlike, treasuring his bag of chessmen, addressing their father as “sir” and barely speaking unless spoken to. This recalcitrance is partly a sign of the times – a deference of youth to his elders – and partly a facet of Dell’s personality. The opposite of Huck Finn – “he doesn’t enjoy talking”, as one character observes – it makes his utter abandonment all the more affecting.

Once their parents are in jail – to avoid being taken into state care – Berner runs away and Dell is driven over the border to Saskatchewan by an acquaintance (perhaps the only acquaintance) of their mother. From this moment the novel opens out somewhat. A remarkably lean, clinically focused story, partly facilitated by the family’s own isolation, the broadened cast in Canada is redolent of William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic transposed over the northern border. Alongside the delightfully unsavoury Charly, Dell works as an assistant to tourist hunters, shooting and gutting geese and living in a shed. He is gradually brought into the confidence of his boss, and given more responsibilities in the hotel. The hotel is owned and run by Arthur Remlinger, also in exile. Years ago he was an anarchist at Harvard and planted a bomb that he intended only to destroy property but ended up killing a man. Here we are presented with the other side of self-justification. Dell’s father commits a crime he hopes to get away with, Remlinger commits a crime that has unintended results. This is ultimately more dangerous as instead of being forced to face up to his responsibility, he still has a self-image to protect, against which any investigation is an insult.

Remlinger is the double of Dell’s father – in one scene he even makes Dell pretend to be his son – and in his story he is Bev Parsons taken to his logical conclusion: if self-preservation becomes our sole morality we will not stop at murder. And there is nobody so desperate that they don’t still need to see themselves as essentially a good person pushed to extreme actions by the contingent world or the meddling of others. We meet Remlinger at a time when his past is about to catch up with him. Totally abandoned, Dell naturally clings to the man. While cleaning his boss’s room he finds a chess board and a pistol and fantasises about playing chess with Remlinger, unaware that he is already a pawn in the man’s strategy, and that the pistol can only obey Chekhov’s law.

On his way to commit murder, Remlinger accuses Dell of not talking enough. This is an acknowledgement of why he needs Dell, as well as why he finds him unacceptable. Because Dell never speaks unnecessarily, he will never betray Remlinger (although he owes him nothing), but neither will he meet Remlinger’s constant jabbering self-justification with any response – he refuses to paper over the man’s flaws by colluding in his projection of a good man made desperate. There is a dignity to this transgression of the social contract; it makes for awkward, urgent reading. It is always impressive to encounter a veteran writer going from strength to strength as opposed to chasing after former mastery.

Canada is, on the surface, the more catastrophic narrative and yet there is a defiant grace to Dell's journey, which only emerges once the novel catches up with him in adult life, as happy and unhappy as anyone else. The scenes where he reunites with his sister are devastating in their understated disappointment. There is a wisdom and perspective that is the leitmotif of Ford's late style, profoundly sad but ultimately less oppressive than the existential crises of The Sportswriter and its sequels in its philosophical stoicism: "It's wrong to wish away even bad events, as if you could ever have found your way to the present by any other means."

Amid despair, Dell’s saviour is Remlinger’s girlfriend Florence La Blanc, a painter. He first meets her sitting at her easel, drawing a scene of urban decay – “the vacant post office and a pair of broken-in houses”. Dell asks her why she’s painting it and she responds that she just paints places she likes. Places that wouldn’t get to be pretty otherwise. And one feels that Ford likes Canada, too, that Dell finds his strength and adult self in the country, whose “similarity to America made its foreignness profound”.

Canada becomes a symbol of self-reinvention, of true independence; the Canadian Dream, which leaves us with the fear and beauty of Florence’s statement that whatever our circumstance: “Life’s passed along to us empty. We have to make up the happiness part.”

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.