Canada by Richard Ford

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Aaron David
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    says:

    So, the Sportswriter it is not?

    One of my rules of thumb, for years now, was never read a book that has an English professor as a character. That only speaks to laziness, and in any case Russo did it better in Nobody’s Fool. (Mainly because it was a secondary character who was mostly a failure at it.)

    A newer rule of thumb has come to be that we are in a bad period for fiction right now. Getting mostly exquisite sentences that say absolutely nothing. The Franzens, Foster Wallaces, etc. aren’t doing much to fix this as the market for the books is moving into poetry like bleakness. And by that I mean we are getting to the point that the readers of literature are a dwindling, tightening circle. A circle that seemingly only looks inward. And while I haven’t read Canada, your review helps confirm this.

    ETA excellent review by the way.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Aaron David
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      says:

      The story itself is about a 15-year-old boy growing up with two parents who rob a bank. He’s not at all an English professor. The book, itself, however is written as an autobiography by the English professor that this boy grows up to be. There are probably only a couple of pages where he references being a professor now at all. His grown-up life altogether take up perhaps 20 pages.

      So, I would say don’t avoid it solely because you don’t like reading about English professors. You won’t be reading much of anything about an English professor doing things.

      But you should avoid it if you want to avoid reading something *by* an English professor who doesn’t bother hiding the fact in how he writes, even if he is writing about something orthogonal to being a professor.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Aaron David
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      says:

      One of my rules of thumb, for years now, was never read a book that has an English professor as a character.

      Or a professor of “symbology”.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Aaron David
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      says:

      The Anubis Gates is about an English professor who turns into a different English professor 🙂Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Mike Schilling
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        says:

        Yes, and it is Genre with a capital G! (Brendan needed to be of a profession that would get him included in the mission, hence it doesn’t fall victim of a conceit to keep the writer and reader safe.)Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    I haven’t read any Richard Ford but I kind of dig that last bit you highlighted.

    I also don’t see anything wrong with books about English professors. Stoner by John Williams is a great book about a dirt poor farm boy who becomes an English professor at the University of Missouri.

    Note if I had a genie wish for a career, tenured professor of drama or literature at a picturesque college or university in the Northeast or Northwest would be a strong contender. Middlebury, Reed, Amherst, U of Washington, Portland State, a school in Boston, NYU,
    etc.

    I think there is a constant tension between what so called lit snobs get out of books and what genre fans get out of reading. A friend once said fans of genre are people who want to live anywhere but this world. My fantasies through reading are more for upper Bohemia of a kind.

    What do you generally read for pleasure?

    One thing I have noticed is that many people (if they read) are relentlessly practical in their reading choices. Stuff for business or work abound. I have a hard time forcing myself to read career oriented books.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      The general problem with having an English prof for a character is that it becomes the fantasy, the “live anywhere but this world” for a certain set of readers. It is really no different that reading a Harlequin in that sense, a genre novel for lit fans. A safety net as far as character development goes. Kinda like a play about actors, in that there is very little in the sense of challenging thought going into it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Aaron David
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        says:

        A play about comedians and failed comedians, on the other hand, is a great way for the author to stretch themselves.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Aaron David
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        says:

        If this is what you seek to avoid, then have no fear. His is not a life that one would envy. Even after becoming a professor, I didn’t sense any real joy in that.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Aaron David
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        says:

        I think Stoner is a good exception to the rule. The main protagonist had a rather tough life and the book is not that modern. The protagonist starts off as an agriculture student at the turn of the 20th century.

        How do you feel about Lucky Jim?

        There are some great plays about plays or plays within plays though. Noises Off by Michael Frayn. After Darwin by Timberlake Wannabaker (sp?)Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          Who’s Camus Anyway
          … is not one of them.
          (mostly notable because the guy I was watching it with knew one of the actors).Report

        • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          I have never read Stoner, so really have no opinion on that. Well, other than of course someone could write an amazing characterization of a professor, but to do so at this time they would absolutely need to rise above the fray of current literature.

          I haven’t read or thought about Lucky Jim in decades, but would say that it is pretty forgettable, a literary novel that sinks to genre. Contrast it with his Green Man, a genre novel that rises to literature. A lot of that may be due to the skills learned as a writer moves away from his first novel and practices the trade.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    Richard Ford is far and away my favorite author, as constitutive of my emotional worldview as any other thing or person not in my family, really, and I didn’t finish Canada. Yet.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Michael Drew
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      says:

      He’s certainly worthy. I’m glad I read Canada. Can you elaborate on the emotional worldview? Or write a post about it? 🙂

      I think one of the prices I’ve paid in so rarely reading any fiction is that I’m not particularly good at it. I get lost with anything more story whose lessons are more subtle than The Little Train that Could.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        I’m not sure I can. It’s something about the way he presents a certain calm, detached masculinity that’s also deeply vulnerable and insecure, and then wraps it together with contemplation of what it is to be American (or, to be more precise, a white American male born before, oh, 1970 to be quite generous to me). I think it connects me with an American (white) male attitude – a graceful or at least not-complaining acceptance of some of the responsibilities that come with of power and privilege (though in the event also most often grievous failures to actually discharge those responsibilities faithfully) – that is dying out, probably thankfully, today, but that I’m glad to know about. In short and to fully own the cliche, Ford probably helps me understand my father a little better, even though my actual father can’t stand Richard Ford, and thinks he’s smug and mean-spirited. Which he is.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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          says:

          …This, by the way, is one stab at it. I could probably have another try at it and say something completely different.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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          says:

          …Let me clarify to say that I’m not saying that attitude is exclusively one that white males can have – not at all. I’m just trying to acknowledge what is probably one of the most last critiques of Ford – that he presents an extremely white-male view of the world and being American. I think that definitely keeps him from climbing the ranks of our most important literary figures to the very top echelon. To an extent he shies away form the hardest parts of the American experience, and his imagine, though prodigious in considering one kind of perspective, is of limited range. But all the same, given that my social my social identification happens to be the one into which he’s put so much effort at filling out with a recreated literary consciousness, for that reason his creations end up speaking to me personally quite a bit. But that really doesn’t make him our most valuable author by any stretch of the imagination, nor would I expect his work to speak to people who aren’t white American males as much as it does to me (though in many cases it very well might…).Report

        • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Michael Drew
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          says:

          Michael Drew: a certain calm, detached masculinity that’s also deeply vulnerable and insecure, and then wraps it together with contemplation of what it is to be American (or, to be more precise, a white American male born before, oh, 1970 to be quite generous to me). I think it connects me with an American (white) male attitude – a graceful or at least not-complaining acceptance of some of the responsibilities that come with of power and privilege (though in the event also most often grievous failures to actually discharge those responsibilities faithfully)

          This is immensely helpful to me in making sense of the book.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        …I’m assuming you have read the major Ford novels and some of the stories, then? I’m not totally clear from the review, but I can’t imagine why else you’d have stuck with Canada.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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      says:

      My overall take on Canada, based partly on listening to interviews with RF, is that it is the work of a guy trying above all to do something different from what he’d been doing just, and what was the main thing he’d done in his career, which in this case was the same thing. Which means it’s not necessarily quite the thing that felt most right or natural for him to do at that time. So it’s sort of an experimental work. And I think you can kind of pick that up in its highly formalistic and stylized construction. It’s cerebral, and not very direct or emotional, even for Ford, and Ford is already not very much those things. Though he is sentimental as all get-out. Or at least, Frank Bascombe is.Report

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