GAN Quest: The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

A digressive, long-winded, over-adjectived, frequently-hyphenated contemplation of the middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road American male…

😦

the lay of the landFrank Bascombe sets out to have a meeting with his ex-wife. Five immensely tedious reading hours later and nearly a third of the way through the book, he hasn’t yet got there. But he has digressed endlessly on those subjects that seem to obsess the white, middle-class, middle-aged American male of fiction – their health, the fact that they don’t understand their children, their ex-wives (almost always plural), their sexual prowess or lack thereof, and the way the country is going to the dogs. I admit defeat – I can’t take any more.

I feared right from the beginning that I was going to struggle with this book. Straight away, Ford gets into existential crisis mode with our narrator, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, fearing that he is not ready to meet his maker. Five hours later, I was unsympathetically thinking that he shouldn’t worry – he has plenty of time left since he has the ability to turn every hour into a yawning eternity of low-level angst. It took me four days to read that five hours’ worth, because I had to keep stopping to remind myself that actually life isn’t a dismal wasteland of pretentious emptiness – or at least, if it is, then I prefer my own pretentious emptiness to that of the tediously self-obsessed Frank Bascombe.

Each line of sparse and unrealistic dialogue is separated by two or three paragraphs analysing the one before and anticipating the one to come, while every noun is preceded by roughly eight, usually-hyphenated, increasingly-convoluted-and-contrived, unnecessary-except-to-fill-up-the-space adjectives…

…elderly, handsome, mustachioed, silver-haired, capitalist-looking gentleman in safari attire…

…a fetid, lightless, tin-sided back-country prison…

…a smirky, blond, slightly hard-edged, cigarette-smoking former Goucher girl… (what on earth is a Goucher girl? All those words and yet he still fails to communicate his meaning.)

Frankly, until I tried to read this book, I thought I was fairly fluent in American. After all, I coped with Twain’s dialect in Huckleberry Finn and Steinbeck’s in The Grapes of Wrath, and dealt comfortably with Ellis’ pop culture obsession in American Psycho. But it appears not. Even my Kindle’s built-in US-English dictionary didn’t recognise more than half of the words I looked up. Has he invented this language? Or is it a kind of slang that was fashionable a decade or so ago and has now been already forgotten? Whatever, if it’s comprehensible to Americans then that’s what matters, of course, but I think I’d have to wait for the English translation to become available. Though I’m in no rush for it…

…skint black hair…

…business lunch and afternoon plat-map confab…

…against every millage to extend services to the boondocks…

My life in Haddam always lacked the true resident’s naive, relief-seeking socked-in-ed-ness…

Richard Ford
Richard Ford

It’s not just made-up words and jargon related to the property market that are problematic for this non-US reader, it’s also his use of brands as a shortcut to description – fine if the brands mean something to the reader, otherwise irritating. And he constantly does the same with what I assume are cultural references…

He knows I bleed Michigan blue but doesn’t really know what that means. (Nope, nor me.)

This means a living room the size of a fifties tract home. (So… tiny? Huge? Average?)

Mike frowns over at me. He doesn’t know what Kalamazoo means, or why it would be so side-splittingly hilarious. (Again, nope – pity, because by that stage I could have done with a laugh.)

I’m not really blaming the book for being ‘too’ American – why shouldn’t it be? – but it did make it impossible for me to get into any kind of reading flow, since I was constantly either looking things up or trying to work out the meaning from the context, a problem I’m not usually aware of when reading American fiction, or certainly not to this degree. I’m quite sure that was a large part of why I found it such a stultifying read, but I’d have tolerated it if I’d felt the book was shedding light on anything that interested me. But I’m afraid the trials and obsessions of the well-off, educated, American male don’t, particularly. Shall I eat wheat-grain or indulge my wicked side with a ‘furter? Let me list all the things I wear so you can understand my social position. I spent $2000 dollars on Thanksgiving lunch just because I can.

A 1950s tract house - or as we in the UK would call it - a house.
A 1950s tract home – or as we in the UK would call it – a house.

Buried amidst the heap of unnecessary wordiness, there is probably some insight on what it is to be middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road and male in Millenium America, and there may even be bits that are funny. Sadly I lost my ability to laugh at around page 5, but am hoping it may return now that I’ve abandoned it. Is there a plot or a story or any kind of forward progression? Not that I noticed, but maybe it becomes a gripping read once he gets to the meeting with his ex-wife, if he ever does. I guess I shall never know…

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(Dear Matt, (who recommended this one to me) – my sincere apologies! Sometimes the reader and the book just don’t gel, and I had to get it out of my system for fear of developing stomach ulcers. 😉 )

 

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Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest*laughs hollowly* To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagPerhaps it would have if I could have borne to read all the way through. But since I couldn’t – not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagSince I feel as if every second book written by American males (and indeed British males) is an exceedingly similar account of their middle-aged angst, then no.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagUmm…guess the answer to this one!

 

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo.

 

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So not The Great American Novel, and since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, neither A Great American Novel nor even a great novel, I’m afraid. Though perhaps Americans might feel differently…

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PS Fascinatingly, every single 5-star review of this on Amazon UK is written by a man. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that before on any novel. Perhaps it’s not so much that I’m the wrong nationality as the wrong gender… or both.

Book 7
Book 7

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…

 

Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.

 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

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Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)