Tuesday, March 24, 2009


To my mind, and faithful to Frost, 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 to sensation itself—almost always goes flying out the window. This is 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. Martin Amis 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.

Richard Ford in Bookforum on the Frank Bascombe trilogy, the rest here.


Andrew said...

I'm surprised that you like Richard Ford, given that I had the impression you couldn't stand John Updike.

Helen DeWitt said...

Wha-? But Ford is nothing like Updike.

Andrew Gelman said...

I defer to your expertise in this area. My impression is that Ford is an updated Updike:

- For his day, Updike was in complete control of character, setting, point of view, etc. Ford is the equivalent for his generation, even more controlled than Updike, but that's just a natural advance in technique, I think.

- Bascome is an updated Rabbit: more educated and more self-reflective, but that's what you'd expect given that it's a generation later. Both of them are catnip to the ladies, leaving the reader with the impression that the authors themeselves are smoothies.

- Updike and Ford are both chroniclers of male middle-class America-as-it-is.

I grant that Ford is controlled enough that he doesn't stoop to such embarrassments as the Bech books (yeah, I know some reviewers love them, but that's their problem, not mine); still, I see Bascombe as his best and Rabbit as Updike's best, and comparable. Both are dead-serious and both are hilarious in their own ways.

Helen DeWitt said...

OK, I retract. It's probably not true that he's nothing like Updike. But I don't think one automatically likes every writer who bears a family resemblance to a writer one likes, or dislikes every writer who bears a family resemblance to a writer one doesn't much care for.

I read The Sportswriter a long time ago, and one of the things I loved about it was the way Bascombe's ex-wife was referred to as X. I just loved this. The narrative otherwise had all the qualities you mention, I guess you could say it was realistic in an Updikean way, but here was the protagonist's ex-wife referred to as X! It was absolutely lovely. I can imagine going back and rereading the book for that alone. But that, to my mind, is nothing like Updike - and see, it was one of my favorite things about the book. (I really have to defer to your expertise on Updike, though, because I don't think I was ever able to force myself to finish one of his books. Demoralized, probably, by the absence of variables among the dramatis personae.)

Andrew Gelman said...

I agree that the X thing was a stroke of genius. As was the title, The Sportswriter. Updike is great but not for titles. Actually, I can't think of a single good title among all his stories and novels. OK, I guess The Witches of Eastwick isn't a bad title. But that's about it. Nothing in the oeuvre to match the title, The Sportswriter.

Philip K. Dick was another writer who couldn't come up with a good title to save his life. Hemingway, though--he knew how to write a title. Over and over again, he came up with winners. It's a real skill.

It was only years after publishing Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks that I realized I should've called it Learning Statistics: A Bag of Tricks. Maybe it was years after writing Rabbit, Run, that Updike realized he should've called it Anhedonia or whatever. (And the sequels: Rabbit Redux and the rest . . . great novels, but awful, awful titles. What was he thinking??)

Raymond Carver's titles are good, but that impresses me less since I'm not so impressed with his stories. George V. Higgins's titles were OK--not bad, mostly not great--but his novels had some classic last lines. He really knew how to sum it up, often with a character making a devastating offhand remark.