Apr/May 2009

Nobody’s Everyman

The novelist considers Frank Bascombe’s role as a stand-in for the rest of us.

Richard Ford


Over the last twenty years, goodwilled readers have occasionally asked me if Frank Bascombe, the yearning, sometimes vexatious, narrator of my three novels The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Lay of the Land—if Frank Bascombe was intended to be an American “everyman.” By this I think these readers mean: Is Frank at least partly an emblem? Poised there in the final clattering quadrant of the last century, beset with dilemmas and joys, equipped with his suburban New Jersey skill set and ethical outlook—do Frank’s fears, dedications, devilings, and amusements stand somewhat for our own?

Naturally, I’m flattered to hear such a question, since it might mean the questioner has read at least one of these books and tried to make use of it. And I can certainly imagine that a millennial standard-bearer might be worth having; a sort of generalizable, meditative, desktop embodiment of our otherwise unapplauded selves—one who’s not so accurately drawn as to cause discomfort, but still recognizable enough to make us feel a bit more visible to ourselves, possibly recertify us as persuasive characters in our own daily dramas.

But the truth is that Frank Bascombe as ‘‘everyman’’ was never my intention. Not only would I have no idea how to go about writing such a full-service literary incarnation, but I’m also sure I’d find the whole business to be not much fun in the doing. And I still want to enjoy what I’m doing.

In nearly forty years of writing stories of varying lengths and shapes and, in the process, making up quite a large number of characters, I’ve always tried to abide by E. M. Forster’s famous dictum from Aspects of the Novel that says fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life.” To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and to make generalizations about as the people we actually meet every day. This incalculability would seem to have the effect of drawing us curiously nearer to characters in order to get a better, more discerning look at them, inasmuch as characters are usually the principal formal features by which fiction gets its many points across. These vivid, surprising details—themselves well rendered in language—will, indeed, be their own source of illuminating pleasure. And the whole complex process will eventuate in our ability to be more interested in the characters, as well as in those real people we meet outside the book’s covers. In my view, this is why almost all novels— even the darkest ones—are fundamentally optimistic in nature: because they confirm that complex human life is a fit subject for our interest; and they presume a future where they’ll be read, their virtues savored, their lessons put into practice. (I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost’s advice meant specifically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practice it somewhat irresponsibly.)

Neither of these two directives seems to mean that human beings are really just muddles and that writing about them can be pretty much a frolicsome crapshoot. Forster and Frost each took life and writing more seriously than that. But together these prescriptions do suggest to me, anyway, that imaginative writing should admit to the dazzling particularity and indeterminacy of life-as-a-subject, and that to act on this perception of life—by representing it as it is— can actually be pleasurable and produce very interesting results. And it’s from this understanding that I founded my conviction that drawing up and reading sociologically, demographically, even anatomically correct embodiments of a larger class of humans—which is how I imagine writing an everyman would be—is a writing ambition that falls short of both life’s and art’s most glorious possibilities.

The art critic Robert Hughes once wrote of Cézanne that instead of possessing a theory about painting, Cézanne relied on sensation, “the experience,” Hughes wrote, “of being up against the world—fugitive, and yet painfully solid, imperious in its thereness and constantly, unrelentingly new.” I conceive of writing novels in something of the same way. Regarding my own writing habits, I try to play down the part about the world being painful, unrelenting, and imperious—even though it can be all these things. But I do not play down the raw sensation part. My novelist’s version of sensation, of being up against the world, is to keep my nose pressed similarly up to the palpable, mutable, visible, audible, smellable, and for the most part disorderly world, flooded as it is with exquisite, intractable, irresistible details. And where Cézanne had paint as his affectionate medium, I have language, which I either find or invent, in order to mediate and imagine the world for my reader, and in a manner (to quote Hughes in another context) that’s in accord with experience’s “density.”

Of course, you can say that I operate with some kind of theory. So did Cézanne. His “theory” was that he’d already seen other paintings achieve marvelous effects, and believed that there were such real things as people, who act and look one way and another, and that it mattered to us what they do, so that representing people in a painting was a way of imagining how the world can matter more than we might’ve expected, and even be beautiful. It’s a fairly loose theory. But it’s more or less my theory for writing novels. And it has nothing to do—at least that I can see—with writing generalizable, freight-bearing characters who become everymen.

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.

From such a lyrical process I suppose one could produce an everyman. But even if you were very skillful, you’d have to be very, very lucky. And it was never my intention anyway. Of course, it’s always my wish that readers do with my books what Walter Benjamin thought readers should do with stories—and as I mentioned before: make use of them. And one more example of such a use might be to believe that a character is like and/or interestingly unlike the reader him- or herself, so that the character’s fate or behavior serves that reader to renew his sensuous and emotional life and uncover new awareness. To some extent the spectator always makes the picture. And possibly some spectators who see Frank Bascombe simply have use for him as an everyman.

But vastly more than I want my characters to atomize into some general or even personal applicability, I want them first to be radiant in verbal and intellectual particularity, to not be an everyman but to revel in being specifically this man, this woman, this son, this daughter with all his or her incalculability intact. And I make characters with this intention because I think we were all made and become interesting and dramatic and true by the very same method—which is to say, again, rather fortuitously.

I realize I may not be telling a prospective reader exactly what she or he wants to know about these books, imagined as a “trilogy,” but am only saying what’s on my mind as I’ve begun to think about them all together for the first time—and wanting to free a new reader from some binding and unlikable expectancies, while admitting him to better ones. The three novels were never really imagined as a trilogy, but only “developed” to that status one book at a time leaving me pleasantly surprised, and pleasantly bemused, by the result. I’ve always imagined the novels I’ve written to be entirely independent and freestanding enterprises—one book not requiring a previous book to become understandable. And this was true also of these three, although much industry was devoted by me, as I wrote the second two, to “linking” them and creating an illusion of chronological sequence, of a developing (i.e., aging) main character, with a cohort of recurring secondary characters, recurring landscapes, historical events, and more.

I wrote The Sportswriter in a period of sustained panic in the middle 1980s—most of the novel written while I was living in New Jersey, Vermont, and Montana—and at a time when my writing vocation was threatening to dematerialize in front of me, literally frightening me into a bolder effort than I ever supposed myself capable. Independence Day—begun in 1992, in a rented, seaside house in Jamestown, Rhode Island—I first imagined as a novel with no relation to any other book I’d written. It was to be a story about a beleaguered, well-intentioned divorced father who takes his “difficult,” estranged teenage son on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York—and in so doing draws himself and his son emotionally closer to each other. All seemed to go well through the planning stages (a year). But over that time I began to notice that all the father’s projected calculations about life and events seemed, in my notes, to “sound” like those of Frank Bascombe—the character who’d narrated The Sportswriter. I made dogged efforts to scuttle all thought of a “linked” book. I was fearful of helplessly writing that first novel over again; fearful of having more ambition than skill or sense; fearful of gloomy failure. And yet these fears finally succumbed to the recognition that to be given a “voice” and with it an already-plausible character who can transact the complex world in reasonably intelligent, truthful, even mirthful ways was just too much of a gift from the writing gods to decline. And so Independence Day, after some considerable prewriting adjustments to my original plan, came into existence.

The Lay of the Land, last and longest of these novels, represents as much as anything a straight-on and somewhat less fearful acceptance of the forward momentum of the two previous books, and a concession by me that I’d backed myself into a corner and could either accept the “ambition” to write a third book in train with the others, or else be a pathetic coward for not trying. And in that way, over the next four years—from 2002 to 2006—these Bascombe novels came to their completion.

If it seems that fear played a large part in conceiving these three books, it might just be that fear plays a large part in any work that aspires to the lofty condition of literature. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure, again. Fear of not, at least, trying to meet the challenge of one’s youthful aspirations. Fear, of course, might be the wrong word, or maybe an indelicate word. Another writer might describe the same experience differently—for instance, as the excitation of the protracted creative moment. I’ve already insisted, though, that fortuity played a part, and idleness, and lucky availability. So it seems that all kinds of less-than-majestic human impulses have played their part, and that Thoreau might have been right when he said that a writer is a man who, having nothing to do, finds something to do. Surely one of the sublime allures of literature, and a reason people want to know more about its origins and to draw near to them, is that part of literature’s breathtaking miracle is its sheer unlikeliness in the hands of its makers, the chance that, given all, it just might never have happened.

If any of this seems close to the truth, then consider yourself to have encountered something about human beings, of which writers are a subspecies: that we go on being human even when we want to be better; and also something about the habit of art, that great, intense, optimistic, and forward-thinking seduction that seeks magically to change base metal into gold. This alchemy, and our willingness to test it, may have something to do with what some people (but not I) romantically call talent. But even if these three novels together don’t turn out to be in every case twenty-four carat, know at least that I trusted to luck and industry, incalculability and disinterest as well as I possibly could, and that the habit of art is no less a precious habit for having been the guiding spirit of these books.

Richard Ford is the author of many novels and story collections.

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