To most Europeans, the differences between the USA and Canada seem minimal. They occupy a single landmass; the inhabitants speak English with similar accents; they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same pursuits. If pressed, we might observe that Canada is emptier and (as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine) its people are less likely to shoot each other – but that’s about it.
So it’s interesting, and educational, to read a novel in which Canada defines otherness. For the narrator, Dell Parsons, it’s a place of exile, a diversion from the life he was supposed to lead.
The book begins with Dell and his twin sister, Berner, living quietly with their parents in Montana. Their father has given up a career in the Air Force to become a car salesman, but proves ill-suited to the job; when he runs into financial trouble, he persuades their mother – a teacher – to help him rob a bank. The plan fails, and in the aftermath Dell finds himself driven across the border and given shelter of the most basic kind in a small town in the middle of nowhere. There he is taken up by another exile, Arthur Remlinger, who owns the main hotel; but before long Dell finds that he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
I have long believed Richard Ford to be the greatest living American novelist – an F. Scott Fitzgerald with lower social horizons but the same perfection of narrative tone and gift for wise generalisations about life and human nature. Canada, however, doesn’t find him at his best. Its main fault – oddly for an author who embraces a pared-down, low-key style – is that it gives us too much information, explaining and elaborating when this is completely unnecessary. Most obviously, Dell refers throughout the 400-odd pages to ‘Berner, my sister’, as if we could possibly have forgotten his relationship to this key character; and when, at an anxious moment, his mother passes the time by cleaning the bath tub, he adds as an aside ‘which Berner always left dirty’. Does this contribute to our understanding of Berner, or anything else? No.
The unfolding of the plot, meanwhile, is low-key to the point of perversity. It has dramatic – not to say sensational – elements aplenty: not just the robbery, but suicide, incest and a double murder. Ford chooses, however, to tell us far in advance what’s going to happen (whether the robbery will succeed, who’s going to die), so that the tension is minimal. Reading Canada, I wondered at times whether he was lapsing into self-parody, as Anthony Powell did at the end of his career in The Fisher King.
Having said that, the book gets better as it goes along. There’s an obvious change of gear halfway through, when Dell arrives in Canada: Ford’s evocation of the bleak, almost abandoned township in which he finds himself is mesmerising, and the enigmatic Arthur Ramlinger is a chilly, fascinating character. As for the final few chapters, which bring us up to date with Dell’s subsequent life, they are really excellent – above all in their brave and wise contemplation of death.
After putting the book down, I found myself wondering how many other novels had been given the name of a real country. Kafka’s America was the only one that came to mind. Curiously, he wrote it without having visited the place, and one can’t help wishing him alive to see its present state. Perhaps only he could do justice to Trumpland; or will Richard Ford’s next novel prove otherwise?