Tipping Points and Transgressions: Richard Ford’s Canada
Novelist Kylie Ladd reviews Richard Ford’s eagerly awaited new novel, Canada, a rich, nuanced study of tipping points and transgressions.
‘First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.’
Opening lines don’t get much better than this. The two blunt sentences encapsulate almost the entire plot of Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada – though as it turns out, plot is not what Ford is concerned with. In hypnotic, understated prose, he turns instead to much larger issues: the ways in which our lives are shaped; how we are moulded and created not just by what we’ve done, but also by what is done to us.
It is 1960 in Great Falls, Montana. Fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister Berner are whiling away a lonely but otherwise unremarkable summer. Dell’s father Bev is an Air Force captain, and the Parsons family has been on the move ever since Dell was born. As a result, Dell and Berner have few friends and little sense of belonging to anywhere in particular:
My sister and I had no idea about ‘the west‘, or even for that matter about America itself, which we took for granted as the best place to be. Our real life was the family, and we were part of its loose baggage.
Bev is overlooked for deployment to Korea and decides to leave the Air Force, trying his hand at selling cars and then land. When these fail he dabbles in small-time scams involving local Indians. Dell, meanwhile, looks forward to beginning junior high in the fall, to finally becoming ‘situated‘, as he puts it … until the sunny afternoon when two policemen appear on the porch and promptly arrest both his parents for robbing a bank.
Bev has hatched the scheme in an attempt to pay off the Indians who are threatening his life, to whom he owes money. Though dubious, his wife Neeva agrees to join him. ‘They were … regular people tricked by circumstance and bad instincts, along with bad luck,’ Dell says of his parents, ‘to venture outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back.’ Dell, too, finds himself literally unable to go back: soon after his parents’ arrest an ex-colleague of his mother’s arrives to spirit him over the border to Canada, Berner having already struck out on her own.
Borders and boundaries are central to Ford’s rich, nuanced novel. In Canada, Dell finds himself under the care – though the word is hardly accurate – of Arthur Remlinger, another American with a past that prevents him from returning to his homeland. The most important borders though, Dell discovers, are the spiritual and moral ones, the distinction between the sins a man is capable of and those he will actually commit. He says:
To me, it’s the edging closer to the point of no return that’s fascinating … How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stich of land growing smaller and smaller … You notice it, or you don’t notice it. But you’re already too far, and all is lost.
Canada is a study of tipping points: of the means by which a man is induced to commit a crime, of how a family can be reduced to its individual components, of the way, years later, Dell comes to understand that ‘existence on the planet [is] not just a catalog of random events endlessly unspooling, but a life – both abstract and finite.’ Dell manages, eventually, to make that life for himself, though one of the great powers of this novel is that the reader always has the sense that, even in his sixties as he narrates the book, Dell will forever be the young boy who watched, dumbstruck, as his parents were arrested; will never quite move past the moment, a few months later, of picking up a toupee sodden with blood and placing it in the burn bin containing the severed heads and feet of recently-shot geese.
Despite their horror, such recollections have a dream-like quality. Throughout Canada, Ford’s use of language is measured and mesmerising, rhythmic and ruminative, as spare and unadorned as the Saskatchewan prairie where Dell washes up. In contrast to the novel’s themes of abandonment and loneliness, his voice is calming, almost meditative; he somehow manages to make a scene depicting incest between Berner and Dell seem casual, incidental. This should be jarring or off-putting, but Ford pulls it off. We trust Dell; we are soothed by his voice. It seems fitting when, towards the end of the novel, Dell realises he is happy to forego the country of his birth for its quieter, steadier neighbour, to cross his final border; an appropriately contemplative ending to a beautiful novel:
I often remember [Remlinger’s sidekick] Charley Quarters saying to me, as we sat in lawn chairs watching geese, that something ‘went out’ of him when he drove back to Canada from the lower forty-eight. I feel the opposite. Something always feels at peace in me when I come back. If anything goes out, it’s something I want to be out.
Kylie Ladd is a novelist and freelance writer. Her latest book is Last Summer (Allen & Unwin).