Sunday, February 08, 2015

Reading group: The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

Warning: plot spoiler.

So much for the consensus we seemed to be developing in our reading group - though it was all of the rest of us against one. The dissenter was Doug who had suggested this 1986 novel. Getting on for 400 pages, it consists of the reflections over one Easter weekend of Frank Bascombe, a thirty-nine-year-old male sportswriter living in the fictional suburban Haddon, New Jersey, whose marriage has ended and who is struggling with the emotional aftermath. In a present-tense first-person narration the book follows Frank as he meets his ex-wife for their yearly visit together to the grave of their dead son; goes on a fishing trip with the Divorced Men's Club and is unwillingly befriended by another member, Walter; takes his girlfriend Vickie on a trip to Detroit where he's interviewing an ex-footballer; goes for Easter dinner at Vickie's parents' home and while there is simultaneously ditched by Vickie and called away because Walter has killed himself and left Frank a suicide note; escapes the drama of Walter's death to his office in the night-time city and encounters an attractive female intern, an escape which leads to eventual resurrection from his emotional gloom. Throughout all of this, Frank reflects on a low-key past punctuated by three dramatic events of loss or failure - the immediate fizzling out of a promising career as a fiction writer, the death of his young son and the end of his marriage - and on the meaning of life and his own feelings.

Doug found himself staunchly defending the book against a roomful of people who had found it, in Ann's word, 'tedious.' None of us disagreed with him that the prose is excellent on the sentence level, but he was the only person in the room who felt able to identify with Frank Bascombe and his troubles and musings. I said that I had really had to force myself to read the book, and Ann had been unable to make herself finish it in time. I said that I felt that if a woman had written a book of such self-indulgent and self-centred introspection she would have been immediately slammed (ie everyone would have recognised it for what it was), and everyone found laughable and objectionable Frank's sexism. Though Frank makes a great drama (an emotional drama of his own) out of the death of his son and a lesser drama out of his relationship with his living son, his daughter Clarrie appears (both in the action and as a focus of Frank's narrative attention) for the first time only on page three hundred and something (and thereafter is forgotten), and the fact that Frank refers to his ex-wife solely as X is a passable joke that not only wears thin but can't be excused the incipient sexism in its insistence (Doug admitted that he didn't find that psychologically convincing, that it seemed more of an author's joke than Frank's). Vickie is at one point 'a nice little bundle for a lonely fellow to call his in a strange city when time's to kill' (note the possessiveness, the patronisation of 'little', the objectification of 'bundle', and the disrespect implicit in the notion that she's something to kill time with). He refers to the girl his seminary-student lodger is seeing as 'the dumpy little seminary chicken'; he speculates an alternative past for himself which includes 'annexing a little wife', the female intern with whom he (briefly) runs off in the end apparently has 'a pair of considerable grapefruits', and all women are chiefly characterised by their physical characteristics. Reflecting on his escape from a woman asking for his help on the station platform and whom he thinks is the dead Walter's sister, he later muses: 'Fast getaways from sinister forces are sometimes essential.' Ann commented also on Frank's racism, the fact that any black character is initially characterised as precisely that, black, a 'Negro'. One description of his lodger is a quite splendid mix of racism and patriarchal penis envy: 'He is a man I admire, a bony African with an austere face, almost certain the kind to have a long aboriginal penis'.

Doug argued that this was Frank's mentality which the author is exposing with irony. It is indeed hard to believe that a master of prose such as Richard Ford would be unaware of such connotations. It's hard too to believe he isn't making fun of Frank when it turns out that the woman Frank thought was Walter's sister was nothing of the sort and he was escaping her for nothing, or by the fact that on the final day of the weekend, Frank goes from being in love with Vickie at lunchtime and wanting to marry her to contacting an old girlfriend in mid-afternoon, to trying by evening for a reconciliation with his wife and inviting her to have sex with him in the newly-dead Walter's bed (!) (a suggestion which makes her immediately send him packing), and late that same night is picking up the new intern. But the rest of us couldn't find a savage enough irony in the author's overall attitude to Frank either to entertain us or to prevent us from feeling that fundamentally we were meant to identify with him (a point raised in the review, less critical than ours, by Alice Hoffman for the New York Review of Books, which famously prompted Ford and his wife to shoot copies of one of Hoffman's own novels).

Frank's meditations on life seem to be intended to be taken seriously, and indeed merit it, stemming as they do from the grief of his son's death and the end of his marriage. I said that one problem for me, though, was that I wasn't ever clear precisely what Frank's attitude to life was. At times I thought he was looking for transcendence (in his relations with women, in his surroundings: 'Hoving Road this morning is as sun-dappled and vernal as any privet lane in England'), but at others he seems in retreat from anything so unsettling as the search for transcendence - 'Holidays can hold too many disappointments that I then have to accommodate' - and orderly suburbia his chosen place of retreat from it. Jenny said she had no such problem; she saw Frank as quite clearly suffering mid-life crisis. Looking at the book again to write this, I see that there is perhaps a progression (or rather, an about-turn) from Frank's relish of suburbia to contempt as he finally escapes on the train: '...climbing down tonight onto the streets of any of these little crypto-homey Jersey burgs could heave me into a panic worse than New York ever has'. However, the book did not engage me enough, I think, for me to perceive Frank's earlier attitude as ambivalent rather than merely inconsistent.

I also said I had an overall problem with the narrative voice: who was Frank speaking to in spilling out all of his deeper feelings? Doug said, well, he's talking to himself, as one does at life-crisis times. I said, but you don't need to tell yourself who you are or where you live, which is precisely how this novel begins: 'My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter. / For the past fourteen years I have lived here at 19 Hovington Road, Haddam, New Jersey, in a large Tudor house bought when a book of short stories I wrote sold to a movie producer for a lot of money...' Thus the book doesn't work as an interior monologue. However, I wan't sure that the novel worked as a direct address to a reader, either, as although there are other moments of direct address and lots of backstory explanation, I felt that the listener was intended as other than the reader, more specific. If so, however, that listener is never identified as in the convention of a dramatic monologue. My overall impression therefore was that the focus of the narrative voice was blurred and it lacked integrity.

Finally, someone said to a chorus of agreement, and to Doug's dismay, that there wasn't an ounce of humour in the book. Here I had to come down on Doug's side. It seems to me that Frank's tone throughout is wry, that in spite of his sexism there's a gentle and often humane comedy in the depiction of many of the characters, and that Frank has a nice line in ironic word-play ('Face the earth where you can. Literally speaking, it's all you have to go on.')

One interesting thing was that this book was chosen for discussion by the group over another, contemporary novel, because of its good reputation stemming from generally enthusiastic critical response at the time of its publication in 1986. Mark in particular was very keen to read it, as he had read it many years ago and had really liked it as a depiction of male middle-age he could look forward to. However, he was shocked on reading it again to find his view of Frank, and of the book, markedly different. This perhaps indicates that the book suffers from a change in social attitudes - that we are perhaps meant to identify with Frank rather than despise him (rather than that Ford has failed on the literary level to satirise Frank properly), but that changed social attitudes made us unable to do so. It is also therefore perhaps interesting that Doug, who said at one point that he does identify with Frank, had also read the book fifteen years ago, but had not had time to read it again for the meeting.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.
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