I N T R O D U C T I O N
Over the last twenty years, goodwilled readers have occasionally asked me if Frank Bascombe, the yearning, sometimes vexatious, narrator of the three novels that make up this sizeable volume – if Frank Bascombe was intended to be an American ‘‘everyman?’’ By this I think these readers mean: is Frank at least partly an emblem? Poised there in the final clattering quadrant of the last century, beset with dilemmas and joys, equipped with his suburban New Jersey skill-set and ethical outlook – do Frank’s fears, dedications, devilings and amusements stand somewhat for our own?
Naturally, I’m flattered to hear such a question, since it might mean the questioner has read at least one of these books and tried to make use of it. And I can certainly imagine that a millennial standard-bearer might be worth having; a sort of generalizable, meditative, desk-top embodiment of our otherwise unapplauded selves – one who’s not so accurately drawn as to cause discomfort, but still recognizable enough to make us feel a bit more visible to ourselves, possibly re-certify us as persuasive characters in our own daily dramas.
But the truth is that Frank Bascombe as ‘‘everyman’’ was never my intention. Not only would I have no idea how to go about writing such a full-service literary incarnation, but I’m also sure I’d find the whole business to be not much fun in the doing. And I still want to like what I’m doing.
In nearly forty years of writing stories of varying lengths and shapes and, in the process, making up quite a large number of characters, I’ve always tried to abide by E. M. Forster’s famous dictum from Aspects of the Novel that says fictional characters should possess ‘‘the incalculability of life.’’ To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalizations about as the people we actually meet every day. This incalculability would seem to have the effect of drawing us curiously nearer to characters in order to get a better, more discerning look at them, inasmuch as characters are usually the principal formal features by which fiction gets its many points across. These vivid, surprising details – themselves well-rendered in language – will be their own source of illuminating pleasure. And the whole complex process will eventuate in our ability to be more interested in the characters, as well as in those real people we meet outside the book’s covers. In my view, this is why almost all novels – even the darkest ones – are fundamentally optimistic in nature: because they confirm that complex human life is a fit subject for our interest; and they presume a future where they’ll be read, their virtues savored, their lessons put into practice.
To my mind . . . these three Frank Bascombe novels, along with everything else I’ve ever written, have been largely born out of fortuity. First, I fortuitously decided I wanted to write a book. I then collected a lot of seemingly random and what seemed like significant things out of the world, things I wanted to make fit into my prospective book – events, memories, snippets of what someone said, places, names of places, ideas – all, again, conveyed in language (sometimes just words I liked and wanted to put into play). After that, I set about trying to intuit that unruly language into a linear shape that was clear enough to make a reader temporarily give up disbelief and suppose that herein lies a provoking world with interesting people in it. And I did this with the certainty that even if I were working straight from life, and was trying to deliver perfect facsimiles of people directly to the page, the truth is that the instant one puts pen to paper, fidelity to fact – or to one’s original intention or even sensation itself – almost always goes flying out the window because language is an independent agent different from sensation, and tends to find its own loyalties in whimsy, context, the time of day, the author’s mood, sometimes even maybe the old original intention – but many times not. Northrop Frye once wrote that ‘‘literature is a disinterested use of words. You need to have nothing riding on the outcome.’’ Another way of saying that is: the blue Bic pen glides along the page and surprising things always spill out of it.
Vastly more than I want my characters to atomize into some general or even personal applicability, I want them first to be radiant in verbal and intellectual particularity, to not be an everyman but to revel in being specifically this man, this woman, this son, this daughter with all his or her incalculability intact. And I make characters with this intention because I think we were all made and become interesting and dramatic and true by the very same method – which is to say, again, rather fortuitously.
These three novels were never really imagined as a trilogy, but only ‘‘developed’’ to that status one book at a time, leaving me pleasantly surprised, and pleasantly bemused, by the result.
I wrote The Sportswriter
in a period of sustained panic in the middle 1980s – most of the novel written while I was living in New Jersey, Vermont and Montana – and at a time when my writing vocation was threatening to dematerialize in front of me, literally frightening me into a bolder effort than I ever supposed myself capable. Independence Day
– begun in 1992, in a rented, seaside house in Jamestown, Rhode Island – I first imagined as a novel with no relation to any other book I’d written. It was to be a story about a beleaguered, wellintentioned divorced father who takes his ‘‘difficult,’’ estranged teenage son on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York – and in so doing draws himself and his son emotionally closer to each other. All seemed to go well through the planning stages (a year). But over that time I began to notice that all the father’s projected calculations about life and events seemed, in my notes, to ‘‘sound’’ like Frank Bascombe’s – the character who’d narrated The Sportswriter
. I made dogged efforts to scuttle all thought of a ‘‘linked’’ book. I was fearful of helplessly writing that first novel over again; fearful of having more ambition than skill or sense; fearful of gloomy failure. And yet these fears finally succumbed to the recognition that to be given a ‘‘voice’’ and with it an already-plausible character who can transact the complex world in reasonably intelligent, truthful, even mirthful ways, was just too much of a gift from the writing gods to decline. And so Independence Day
, after some considerable pre-writing adjustments to my original plan, came into existence.The Lay of the Land
, last and longest of these novels, represents as much as anything a straight-on and somewhat less fearful acceptance of the forward momentum of the two previous books, and a concession by me that I’d backed myself into a corner and could either accept the ‘‘ambition’’ to write a third book in train with the others, or else be a pathetic coward for not trying. And in that way, over the next four years – from 2002 to 2006 – these Bascombe Novels
came to their completion.
If any of this seems close to the truth, then consider yourself to have encountered something about human beings, of which writers are a sub-species: that we go on being human even when we want to be better; and also something about the habit of art, that great, intense, optimistic and forward-thinking seduction that seeks magically to change base metal into gold. This alchemy, and our willingness to test it may have something to do with what some people (but not I) romantically call talent. But even if the current efforts here don’t turn out to be in every case 24 carat, know at least that I trusted to luck and industry, incalculability and disinterest as well as I possibly could, and that the habit of art is no less a precious habit for having been the guiding spirit of these books that follow.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard Ford. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.