Slow Like a Snail, But Is It Good?: Canada

4I am not sure what to think of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. It is a big novel, clocking in at 418 pages, but it moves incredibly slowly. On the first page, Dell Parsons, the narrator, announces the two key plot events in the whole book:

“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first” (3).

That is the first paragraph of the novel and it sets up what should be a gripping and exciting novel. What follows is certainly not gripping, but much slower and seemingly inevitable. A friend of mine reviewed the novel here and she called it plodding. I have to agree with this assessment because Dell’s eventual narration of these two events takes up basically 400 pages. Seriously, it takes that long! The opening paragraph could have been the start of a great short story, but instead it opens up a slow-moving, deeply philosophical and somewhat unexciting novel. In a way, it seems like Ford is trying to say violence happens in an ordinary, everyday manner, and that things happen to us in our childhood over which we have no control.

Part of my frustration with the novel is the way the jacket description of the novel sets up fall expectations. It promises an exciting novel full of violence and “cataclysm” but Canada simply doesn’t bear this out. It also more or less gives a way any surprises that the novel might offer up. Ford is careful in the first paragraph not to name those involved with the murders, but the jacket blurb reads: “[Dell’s] search for grace and peace only moves him nearer a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.” Okay, so we all know to look out for Remlinger now … great. But for me the most problematic aspect of this blurb is that it makes this claim: “in this brilliant novel, set largely in Saskatchewan, Richard Ford has created a true masterwork.” I am not going to argue with the second part of that claim, but the first part is completely wrong. When Dell doesn’t arrive in Canada until page 213 of a 418 page book, you cannot claim that the book is set largely in Saskatchewan. Less than half of it is actually set in Canada, so that claim is ridiculous (not taking into account that most of the novel is about Americans and America with Canada a convenient escape from troubles in the US).

What I did find interesting and troubling was the way that Ford used Saskatchewan’s landscape. It becomes a barren, desolate prairie that weighs heavily on all of the characters. It creates existential thoughts, it crushes souls, and it makes you feel lonely. Okay, I get it – big spaces makes humans feel small. The funny thing is that this is a very old trope in Canadian literature, but here it gets airtime like its a new, revolutionary thought. In 1973, literary critic Laurie Ricou wrote a book about precisely this feeling – that the vastness of the prairie weighs heavily on humans – called Vertical Man/ Horizontal World. It is a bit odd to read new American literature and find it recycling old Canadian tropes. I also was not happy with the way that Charlie Quarters, the novel’s Metis character, is represented as a shifty, unreliable, and morally suspect person. Why did he have to be Metis to be this way? I’m sorry, maybe I’m being too politically sensitive here, but this kind of representation simply reinforces stereotypes of indigenous people as unreliable, lazy, and morally suspect.

Overall, I did enjoy moments of the story and at times even liked the slowness of the pace. I think that Ford may have been experimenting with a different form of narration whereby he tells you upfront what will happen and then carefully works to fully craft the emotional complexity of that world. I`m not sure it always works (I know that Dells`parents are going to rob a bank, you don`t have to tell it to me again!), but I also don`t think this is a terrible novel.

I would recommend this novel to fans of Ford`s work and to those who are interested in seeing the big, bad Prairies and how they will ruin you (Saskatchewan is a very desolate place in this novel).

Ford, Richard. Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

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