Wilkie Collins, the master plotter of Victorian fiction, famously attributed his literary success to the old music hall adage “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” In Canada—his first novel since The Lay of the Land (2006)—Richard Ford emphasizes the third element of that snappy precept. While Canada sets up numerous scenes that teeter on the edge of the comic, they usually slide into the pathetic, macabre, or hallucinatory. The novel’s forlorn tone—of thoughts that lie too deep for tears—quite naturally grows out of the narrator’s painful recollections of a close family destroyed by a foolish act of parental desperation. Ford really excels, however, in his virtuoso command of narrative suspense. He makes us wait.
The two main actions of Canada are announced in its opening lines: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Such sensational words, even presented with matter-of-fact understatement, will grab anyone’s attention. But on the surface, they would also seem to be revealing too much, arguably wrecking the novel’s plot. Yet Ford is nothing if not sensitive to his sentences, emphasizing in many interviews the great care he takes over the subtleties of sound and sense. Nobody, he says, looks longer at his words than he does or calculates more precisely their effects.
So readers should also look again. Note that pronoun “our” instead of “my”—this is, in some way, going to be a story about siblings. Notice, too, that Ford’s narrator dances over whether the robbery is successful or not. Finally, he carefully avoids saying who is murdered and by whom. Ford’s real interest doesn’t lie in the robbery or the murders per se so much as in the events leading up to the crimes and to their aftereffects on those siblings. We know that the robbery and the murders will take place. But when? And how? And what will happen subsequently? So we attend, we observe, we prepare for the inevitable. Readers may recall that Gabriel García Márquez strikingly employed just this technique in his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
In fact, Ford virtually flaunts his artistic chutzpah by the regular insertion of “now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do” flourishes throughout his narrative: in the middle of a page of slow, rich description or of slightly ponderous meditation, he will casually drop in a key fact, almost in passing, like a little nosegay thrown to the surprised crowd. After his opening paragraph, for instance, he introduces the Parsons family: Retired Air Force Captain Bev Parsons, his wife Neeva, and their fifteen-year-old twins, one a girl named Berner. But Ford withholds full identification of the other twin, the book’s narrator. (We wonder, though, about all these distinctly odd, almost transgendered names.) Then, just when most readers will have concluded…
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