Tag Archives: literary fiction

“Your life’s going to go a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead.” Canada, by Richard Ford

2012; Bloomsbury.

432 pages; $29.99.


First, a note: this is the second book I’ve read for the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge. It’s under the category of ‘literary fiction’. I already read a lot of that, so it’s not exactly exploration, but anyway:


First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.”

That’s the first couple of sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada, and it hooked me right away. Impossible to resist.

That opening sets quite a scene, doesn’t it? We’ll hear about a robbery, then some murders – sounds like a thriller.

Well… not really.

Our protagonist is Dell Parsons, fifteen years old at the time of most of the story. He’s nerdy, interested in chess and bees, but it’s his parents who define him. His father is a cheerful ex-Air Force bombardier. His mother is a tightly-wound Jewish schoolteacher. As we learn right away, they robbed a bank, and that’s what the first half of Canada looks at.

Robbing the bank, for Dell’s parents, is suicide. It makes perfect sense at the time (even to his usually-sensible mother); it ends the lives of those who carry it out (their free lives, anyway). Much is made of the sense of weightless freedom the parents feel after deciding to rob the bank. It’s the last decision they’ll ever have to make. Of Dell’s father: “He always believed he wasn’t the kind of man to rob a bank. This was his great misunderstanding.” There’s a sense that they unconsciously know what they’re getting into – looking for a way out of their lives – but going about it in an indirect, roundabout way. It’s obvious from the narrator’s fifty-year distance, but too huge for anyone to see at the time.

The pace of this section is slow but incredibly deliberate. Chunks of information are interspersed throughout Dell’s reflections on his parents’ natures, the workings of the world, and other metaphysical quandaries of interest to a teenager in 1954. Those chunks, though, often have a huge impact on the story being told, and are mentioned only in passing. Every time something pops up – such as a chapter ending with, ‘I was never there again.’ – it requires a quick rearranging of the reader’s beliefs and expectations.

Something like that, anyway.

At first, I didn’t like the second half of Canada. It felt peaceful, dreamlike – nothing like the burning build of the first half. Eventually I decided that it’s supposed to. The second part, which takes place in Canada (finally) represents Dell’s quiet acceptance of his new position in life. After spending the first part reminding readers how aware children can be of their parents’ true intentions, and how readily they adapt to difficult situations, Dell proves it in the second. It’s a big gear change, from theory and introspection to practice and consequence – but it works.

The third part is a coda, which rejoins Dell in the present day, fifty years later. It’s used to wrap up the few lingering loose ends – most notably, for me, the question of what happened to the narrator’s disappearing twin sister. But I found it unsatisfying because, earlier in the book, so much information is presented in asides and digressions. From the first lines, the reader begins to build an idea of what happened and what’s going to. Part three wraps up the story a little too neatly, though it’s still masterfully told. With the theme that life is messy, that you can’t always predict what will happen – “no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from – anything at all can follow anything at all.” –  I found it a little jarring to be simply told what happened to everybody. (The last few sentences, though, are wonderful.)

As in many American novels, the setting is integral. Canada reminded me of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories (though not quite as desolate as all that). The scenery – Montana’s prairies, Canada just to the north, the small towns of North Dakota – all push Dell’s father into the bank robbery scheme. In the end, Dell’s parents’ personalities, history, and location make such a scheme all but inevitable.

Here in Australia we don’t really have anything like the US-Canada border, especially in 1954 when the border was not so tightly controlled. It’s just a step away. With the wide-open spaces of Montana pressing down, making people feel lost and invisible, and that huge unknowable country resting gently to the north, is it any wonder that Americans felt isolated, yet somehow beseiged? Is it any wonder that Dell’s parents feel the unconscious need to escape, to be away, no matter the consequences?

Well – I don’t know. I’m young, poorly traveled; a naive child, really, at this scale. But it’s a testament to Ford’s writing that I have these ideas at all. I was transported slowly but seamlessly. I got a glimpse of the small-town life I’ve never experienced, and I got a flash of how that life can exert silent, grinding pressure on people.

That’s the joy and the melancholy of this book. You’re swallowed up by the wide-open spaces of the prairie and the disintegrating ghost towns of the Saskatchewan wilds.

That’s the reason I read so much American literary fiction, I think. Wide spaces. Woods. Colleges. Highways. The long, slow burn of lives, in four hundred pages. If you liked the feeling you got from Bad Dirt, or you just like really good fiction, I think you’ll like Canada too.


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2013 Literary Exploration challenge, part four

Whew! It’s time for part four of my Literary Exploration challenge reading list for 2013. Nine (that’s nine!) genres today means nine new books. Some of my favourites in here, so let’s get rolling!

19. Literary Fiction

Richard Ford. Canada.

The best way to introduce this novel is with the opening lines: “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.” I read quite a lot of literary fiction (though I’m still quite hard pressed to define it), but nothing of Richard Ford’s yet. He’s considered a master author, and I’m very excited about Canada.



20. Magical Realism

Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus.

Magical Realism archetype One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favourite novels of all time, not least because of its style. While stumbling around trying to find something with the same magic as Solitude, I came across this review, and my mind was made up. Another one I’m very much looking forward to.


21. Mystery

Dennis Lehane. A Drink Before the War.

This was an easy choice, actually. My mother is a big mystery/thriller fan, and gave me Lehane’s Sacred to read early last year. I really enjoyed it, but there was a lot of backstory for detectives Kenzie and Gennaro which I didn’t have. A Drink Before the War is the first Kenzie and Gennaro novel, so it made sense to start there.



22. Noir

James M Cain. Double Indemnity.

Boy, this list has a few huge/vague genres (that’s you, fantasy) and a bunch of overlapping small ones. To me, noir, hard-boiled, and mystery share a lot of titles. For my noir outing, I chose the best (or, at least, most famous) pulp noir I could find. That fantastic cover simply sealed the deal.



23. Non-Fiction

Stephen D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner. Freakonomics.

What did I just say about gigantic genre categories? Counting non-fiction as a genre indicates that ‘fiction’ should be one too, which the 35 other entries on this list suggest is a bit general. Anyway. I’ve been meaning to read Freakonomics for some time, and so… now I will. Honestly, though, this is the genre I’m most open to suggestions on – I don’t read much non-fiction. Drop me a comment!


24. Paranormal

Cassandra Clare. City of Bones.

About 90% of books filed under ‘paranormal’ on Goodreads have a suitably intriguing/mystic/magical looking late-teen girl on the cover, which is a great way to make sure I never pick up a  book. But we’re here to explore! I chose the one with the coolest-sounding series name (“The Mortal Instruments”) and some kind of buff tattooed guy on the cover. Can’t lose!


25. Philosophical

James Gleick. The Information.

As mentioned above, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. None, really. So, I don’t have a lot to base my decisions on, here in Nonfic Land. This book, though – about why information is so important to civilisation, and how it came to be so – sounds interesting. And, I like the cover.



26. Poetry

Stacie Cassarino. Zero  at the Bone.

One of my goals for 2013 is to learn to appreciate poetry. But I know nothing – nothing – about it. I’m basically afraid of it. Zero at the Bone comes on the recommendation of a few friends who are much more poetic than me. So… I’ll keep you posted!



27. Post-Apocalyptic

Hugh Howey. Wool #1-5.

Well. You can have a dystopia without an apocalypse, but you can’t have an apocalypse without a dystopia! I’ve read so, so many of the “best” books from both of these genres that it’s hard to find something I know about but haven’t already read. This basically limits me to something old or something brand new. I’ve got a lot of classics and older books on the list, so it’s time for a new release. This is another genre which is heavy on the mystic-girl cover, which I managed to avoid by choosing Wool (the first five stories, collected).




Whew! Big list today. Come back tomorrow for the last lot – there’s some big names, with things like Thriller, Romance, and Science Fiction.

For the rest of the list, here’s part one, part two, and part three.

As always, if you have any suggestions, drop a comment. Have I missed something? Am I really handsome? Let me know!


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