So, at this point you may be asking yourself, “Doesn’t this guy ever read anything new?” And the answer is yes, I occasionally do. Last Christmas I read Stephen King’s new novel 11/22/63 (the New York Times named it one of their Ten Best Novels of the Year, I would have to disagree). So yes, I do read books that are new and I even sometimes read from the NYT Best Seller list. I wanted to read I, Michael Bennett but then I saw it was written by James Patterson and realized that it was not the autobiography of the director/choreographer of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls that I originally thought it was!
Anyway, all of this to say the I just finished the new novel Canada by Richard Ford (full disclosure – no relation). I would imagine that by now you may have read the two opening lines, which are awesome and quoted in every review and article that I’ve read about the book. If you haven’t read them I highly recommend you do. I hadn’t really thought much about opening lines until a few years ago, but I realize now how crucial (and wonderful) they are. Think about it. The last time you picked up a book at the bookstore or the library, what did you do? Probably looked at the synopsis on the jacket or the sleeve and then read the first sentence or two. At least that’s what I do, and if it doesn’t hook me I put it back down. I spent half a class last year with my writing students reading great opening lines and having them write their own and then read them aloud. A few of them even got stories from them.
Those first two lines set up the entire book, but for me, it began to flatten a bit after that. I’ve read a few comments online from readers who felt that to much of the plot was given away in those first two lines. For a guy who grew up watching Columbo that wasn’t the problem; in fact, I liked that the “plot” of it was set up right up front. What bothered me were what felt like narrative intrusions that would often pop up and indicate what I should think or feel. I felt that too many of the chapters ended with something like “This seemed the saddest thing of all.” or something along that line that felt all too summed up to me.
This is not to say that there aren’t wonderfully written stretches of the novel and characters. There’s a scene between Dell and Charley that’s frightening and beautifully written and the final section has an achingly tender and elegiac feel to it. But the narrative voice kept getting in my way and in the end I found the whole thing a bit too slow.
What’s most interesting to me here is that it’s taken me a few days to write this and I feel a rather sheepish about sending my thoughts on a Pulitzer Prize winner’s new novel out into the world. It’s literature, I’m supposed to like and admire it! By contrast, I had no qualms about writing the fact that I didn’t think Stephen King’s latest was very good. So why is Stephen King fair game, while I feel like I should genuflect in front of Richard Ford? I paid my money and spent the time to read the book, why shouldn’t I feel free to have an opinion. I felt the same way about The Lover which I didn’t care for (more about that later – maybe). I kept thinking, “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I like this in the way my colleagues and cohorts did?”
And maybe the truth is I just have different tastes. Not worse, not better. Just different. Maybe I can be okay with that. But I’m open to other opinions!