Review Of Richard
Ford’s A Multitude Of Sins
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/06
This is a writer, and possibly a great one. I had heard of Richard Ford before, as he is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Independence Day, but- so what? Many Pulitzer and National Book Award winners reek. Even Nobelists have sucked big time. But, Richard Ford is a writer, at least if this book, A Multitude Of Sins, is any indication. Two comparisons leapt to mind. The first was with poet Wallace Stevens, for Ford is at his best when he violates the workshop rule of show, don’t tell. Ford tells of the emotions in his tale like no other contemporary published writer I’ve read. Which leads into my second comparison, that with his contemporary TC Boyle, only three years his junior, but a good three decades or more behind in artistic maturity and wisdom. I recently read Boyle’s Without A Hero, and the difference could not be more stark. Boyle is all ‘strike the pose’, yearning to make up for his adolescent insecurities, whereas Ford is an adult man with purpose and insight, and this series of ten short stories, featuring adultery as the main or side issue- along with some other sins- most notably disappointment, takes apart that topic- and others, and lays it all bare.
That said, not all the stories are great, as some ramble on too long- the greatest flaw in most tales: that the length does not match the amount of information needed to tell the tale. But there are great stories within.
The first tale, Privacy, is a short glimpse at a Peeping Tom, whose lustful feelings for a woman he sees naked, across an alley, clashes full on with the reality the woman bears upon meeting. It starts out in what is a typical Fordian thrust, ‘This was at a time when my marriage was still happy.’ The complexity of the short tale’s structure, and the psychology rendered within, really come together, and put the reader in a familiar spot- think Hitchcock. But, then, Ford pulls the rug away, and the reason for the story is not the expected one, given the narrative. Here is a key moment:
It was on such a cold night that--through the windows at the back of the flat, windows giving first onto an alley below, then farther across a space where a wire factory had been demolished, providing a view of buildings on the street parallel to ours--I saw, inside a long, yellow-lit apartment, the figure of a woman slowly undressing, from all appearances oblivious to the world outside the window glass.
Because of the distance, I could not see her well or at all clearly, could only see that she was small in stature and seemingly thin, with close-cropped dark hair--a petite woman in every sense. The yellow light in the room where she was seemed to blaze and made her skin bronze and shiny, and her movements, seen through the windows, appeared stylized and slightly unreal, like the movements of a silhouette or in an old motion picture.
I, though, alone in the frigid dark, wrapped in blankets that covered my head like a shawl, with my wife sleeping, oblivious, a few paces away--I was rapt by this sight. At first I moved close to the window glass, close enough to feel the cold on my cheeks. But then, sensing I might be noticed even at that distance, I slipped back into the room. Eventually I went to the corner and clicked off the small lamp my wife kept beside our bed, so that I was totally hidden in the dark. And after another few minutes I went to a drawer and found the pair of silver opera glasses which the theater director had left, and took them near the window and watched the woman across the space of darkness from my own space of darkness.
I don’t know all that I thought. Undoubtedly I was aroused. Undoubtedly I was thrilled by the secrecy of watching out of the dark. Undoubtedly I loved the very illicitness of it, of my wife sleeping nearby and knowing nothing of what I was doing. It is also possible I even liked the cold as it surrounded me, as complete as the night itself, may even have felt that the sight of the woman--whom I took to be young and lacking caution or discretion--held me somehow, insulated me and made the world stop and be perfectly expressible as two poles connected by my line of vision. I am sure now that all of this had to do with my impending failures.
Nothing more happened. Though, in the nights to come I stayed awake to watch the woman, letting my wife go off to sleep in her fatigue. Each night, and for a week following, the woman would appear at her window and slowly disrobe in her room (a room I never tried to imagine, although on the wall behind her was what looked like a drawing of a springing deer). Once her clothes were shed away, exposing her bony shoulders and small breasts and thin legs and rib cage and modest, rounded stomach, the woman would for a while cast about the room in the bronze light, window to window, enacting what seemed to me a kind of languid, ritual dance or a pattern of possibly theatrical movements, rising and bowing and extending her arms, arching her neck, while making her hands perform graceful lilting gestures I didn’t understand and did not try to, taken as I was by her nakedness and by the sight on occasion of the dark swatch of hair between her legs. It was all arousal and secrecy and illicitness and really nothing else.
Now, imagine the puerility with which a TC Boyle or the dullness with which a David Foster Wallace would have described such a scene. The fourth quoted paragraph contains insights that are non-existent in most contemporary fiction, and there are realistic details that add to the moment and are not just throwaways to show off a presumed poetic bent. Yet, this isn’t even close to Ford at his best.
Quality Time follows an adulterer who witnesses the violent death of a woman and is haunted by it. But, reading the previous sentence I can tell you that the tale is nothing of what you would expect from a tale so described in a sentence. Again, it is how Ford relates all these facts, and the wonderful way he tells, and cogitates on the facts that makes this a truly great tale. Read this early event from the tale, and ask how many other times you’ve dealt with violence in a book, then compare it to the reality, and you can see how much truer and closer to reality Ford’s description and aftermath are- especially at the end of the section. This is truly great writing:
The stoplight stayed red for Wales’s lane, though the oncoming cars began turning in front of him in quick procession onto Ardmore Street. But the woman who’d fallen and had her hand on her head took this moment to step out into the thoroughfare. And for some lucky reason the driver in the nearest lane, the lane by the curb, slowed and came to a stop for her. Though the woman never saw this, never sensed she had, by taking two, perhaps three unwise steps, put herself in danger. Who knows what's buzzing in that head, Wales thought, watching. A moment ago she was lying in the snow. A moment before that everything had been fine.
The cars opposite continued turning hurriedly onto Ardmore Street. And it was the cars in this lane--the middle turning lane--whose drivers did not see the woman as she stepped uncertainly, farther into the street. Though it seemed she did see them, because she extended the same hand that had been touching her head and held it palm outward, as if she expected the turning cars to stop as she stepped into their lane. And it was one of these cars, a dark van, resembling a small spaceship (and, Wales thought, moving too fast, much faster than reasonable under the conditions), one of these speeding cars that hit the woman flush-on, bore directly into her side like a boat ramming her, never thinking of brakes, and in so doing knocked her not up into the air or under the wheels or onto its non-existent hood, but sloughed her to the side and onto the road--changed her in an instant from an old, young, possibly drunk, possibly sober woman in a gray man’s coat, into a collection of assorted remnants on a frozen pavement.
Dead, Wales thought--not five feet from where he and his lane now began to pass smartly by, the light having gone green and horns having commenced behind. In his side mirror he saw the woman’s motionless body in the road (he was already a half block beyond the scene). The street was congested both ways, more car horns were blaring. He saw that the van, its taillights brilliant red, had stopped, a figure was rushing back into the road, arms waving crazily. People were hurrying from the bus stop, from the apartment buildings. Traffic was coming to a halt on that side.
He’d thought to stop, but stopping wouldn't have helped, Wales thought, looking again into the mirror from a half block farther on. A collection of shadowy people stood out on the pavement, peering down. He couldn’t see the woman. Though no one was kneeling to assist her--which was a sure sign. His heart began rocketing. Cold sweat rose on his neck in the warm car. He was suddenly jittery. It's always bad to die when you don't want to. That had been the motto of a man named Peter Swayzee he’d known in Spain--a photographer, a silly man who was dead now, shot to pieces covering a skirmish in East Africa, someplace where the journalists expected to be protected. He himself had never done that--covered a war or a skirmish or a border flare-up or a firefight. He had no wish for that. It was reckless. He preferred the parts that weren't war. Culture. And he was now in Chicago.
Turning south onto the Outer Drive along the lake, Wales began to go over what seemed remarkable about the death he'd just witnessed. Some way he felt now seemed to need resolving, unburdening. It was always important to tabulate one’s responses.
The story Calling is a bit too long, but still an excellent tale that recounts the last meeting ever between an estranged homosexual father and son. Yet, again, the seemingly trite subject matter is belied by the execution. In certain ways I think it would be fair to say that Ford, born in Mississippi, is not an heir to Faulkner and company, but the rightful heir to John Cheever, for his writing is cosmopolitan, but he has sharper insights into the human condition, and is a bit more skilled at deploying the same bag of narrative tricks that Cheever made mainstream, long before Post-Modernists tried them.
Reunion deals with a man meeting the man whom he cuckolded, briefly, in a public place. It is a ‘moment’ tale, but, as it resembles several Cheever tales, it’s worth noting that, again, Ford brings rare insights into the moment.
The story Puppy is a masterpiece- even at over thirty pages in length, and possibly the best in the book, as it deals with the priorities one has in life, as a man finds an abandoned puppy in his backyard, and struggles to find a home for it, all the while trying to reconcile dreams he is having over an affair he believes his wife had on him. The symbolism that the puppy brings to his being is not the usual, and the tale’s end is really deeply moving, but, again, not in the way one might think such a schmaltzy sounding tale might end.
Crèche, a tale of similar length, about a woman’s holiday time with her family, is not a bad tale, but the weakest yet in the book.
Under The Radar deals with a couple’s reaction to the admission of an affair as they drive to an engagement. Violence of all sorts ensues, and the end is far more chilling than anything Stephen King ever penned- for it’s believable!
Dominion is a solid tale about an adulterous wife who tests her lover when he stops over in Canada. Charity is perhaps the weakest tale in the book, about the confession of an affair, and too long, yet even it has moments of excellence and greatness. Read this: ‘While Tom was talking....she was actually experiencing a peculiar sense of weightlessness and near disembodiment, as though she could see herself listening to Tom from a comfortable but slightly dizzying position high up around the red, scrolly, Chinese-looking crown molding. The more Tom talked, the less present, the less substantial, the less anything she felt. If Tom could’ve gone on talking....Nancy realized she might just have disappeared entirely.’ This fact of a piece of writing often is a greater signaler of a writer’s greatness than a flat-out great tale, for in a tale that does not fully succeed the reasons why it does not are bared, thus allowing a glimpse into narrative mechanism that is often hidden in the ‘magic’ of an unassailably great piece of writing. The last tale, Abyss, at over sixty pages in length, is a de facto novella, and a good one, about the guilt a man feels when his adulterous lover, who is married to a dying invalid, accidentally dies while visiting the Grand Canyon. While there are some dead spots in the narrative, the end more than makes up for them
In short, there is probably no published contemporary writer who seems to understand human emotion as well, and as realistically as Ford. Too often characters act in outrageous ways in tales that are fairly straightforward, and apologists try to say the writer was being inventive, daring, humorous, or Post-Modern, when all they are evidencing is a lack of insight into the characters and situations they’ve created. Like John Cheever, almost all the protagonists in the tale are upper middle class whites. So what? We can all relate to them because the crux of each tale is not the character’s affluence, but their response to pain or injustice or fear. They do not exist merely to delineate white plights, but are white simply because this is what Ford knows best. There are no decidedly WASPy moments the way a Jhumpa Lahiri never lets a reader forget her character’s ethnicities. Nor are there attenuated narratives that say little, ala a Dave Eggers or a Rick Moody or a David Foster Wallace. The worst Ford’s tales get is a bit too long- but that’s a minor flaw in only a few of the stories.
As said, while the tales’ subjects may seem standard issue in contemporary fiction, it is all in the way Ford technically accomplishes his storytelling that makes the difference. Too often writers, in poetry or prose, desire to portray the dullness of, say, suburbia. So, they write dull poems or tales that they argue are dull merely to reflect the idea of dullness. Ford demonstrates the lie and laziness of such writers for, the truth is, on paper, the themes of the tales do not seem exciting. Yet his narrative style is tense, complex, and emotional. Although the theme of the tales are very similar, not a one repeats itself, and the divergent narrative choices show what a truly creative mind can do with a seemingly spent topic. Take a memo, Post-Modernists!
Ford is almost as if a naturalist whose subject is the human mating game. He is the Marlin Perkins of contemporary American Literature, and discerns the patterns, impulses, and vagaries of the heart and id. I was reading a book of Chekhov’s tales as I was reading Ford’s book, and the comparisons some have made to Chekhov are not overblown. He has much of the insight and poignancy into the smallest details and moments that the great Russian writer had, and, in some ways, due to modernity, surpasses Chekhov, at his best.
Here is the moment of realization for the main character of Privacy, and, appropriately, near its end. He realizes who his object of sexual fantasy is:
….And to my surprise though not to my chagrin, she was old. Possibly she was seventy or even older. A Chinese, dressed in thin black trousers and a thin black coat, inside which she must've been as cold as I was. Indeed, she must've been freezing. She was carrying plastic bags of groceries slung to her arms and clutched in her hands. When I stopped and looked at her she turned and gazed down the steps at me with an expression I can only think now was indifference mingled with just the smallest recognition of threat. She was old, after all. I might suddenly have felt the urge to harm her, and easily could've. But of course that was not my thought. She turned back to the door and seemed to hurry her key into the lock. She looked my way once more, as I heard the bolt shoot profoundly back. I said nothing, did not even look at her again. I didn’t want her to think my mind contained what it did and also what it did not.
Luckily, Richard Ford has allowed his own mind’s spillage into his reader’s heads. Finally a published contemporary writer who lives up to the hype. In a word: Bravo!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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