Richard Ford’s “Lay of the Land”


If you read my review of Ford’s book in Sunday’s Times Union, you know that I started the book with high hopes, and ended in disappointment. That, of course, is just me. Or is it?
Having finished reading the book and writing the review, I allowed myself to read other reviews, and found the disconnect between the NYTimes Michiko Kakutani and A.O. Scott to be quiet interesting.
Kakutani’s review includes these lines:

the lethargic third installment of Frank’s story (it follows “The Sportswriter,” published in 1986, and the 1995 sequel “Independence Day”)

the book tends to substitute a lot of talk about New Jersey property values and realtor strategies for genuine insights about how people live today.

In most respects, Frank is stuck in the same emotional rut he was in when last we saw him: endlessly sifting and resifting his life, ruminating over the past and deconstructing the present. Although he gives different eras of his life different names — his “Existence Period,” the “Permanent Period,” “The Next Level” — he has not really grown as a character


Here are some snippets from A.O. Scott:

the point of this rambling is less to advance a coherent philosophy than to dramatize what it is like to try, in the face of constantly mutating, endlessly confusing experience, to come up with one. The cracked, fuzzy, sad-sack aphorisms that dot this novel’s pages represent not the kernels of a man’s wisdom, but rather the chaff of his personality: “Misery may not love company. But discouragement definitely does.” “No one ever gets called a sap without feeling he probably is one.” “There’s so little that’s truly inexplicable in the world. Why should it be such a difficult place to live?”

And so it can feel, writing about these books, that you are not evaluating a literary artifact so much as passing judgment on a person, a much more fretful and subjective task than criticism usually demands. I mean, Frank is, more or less officially, a nice guy, but I’m not always sure I like him.

Elizabeth Hardwick, an infallible if occasionally inscrutable critic, once observed that “Independence Day” “might be judged longer than it should be. But for whom?” The same judgment might apply to the meander and sprawl of “The Lay of the Land,” and certainly to the hypothetical future Modern Library doorstop containing Frank Bascombe in full.

I enjoy and respect both these writers, but Kakutani’s review seemed to be more about the novel, while Scott’s seemed to be more about Ford’s place in American letters. (And this idea is only strengthened by knowing that Scott is writing a book about the American novel.)

Did anyone else read these two reviews in the NYTimes? (I’d link to them, but you have to be registered on the Times’ site to access them.)

As for my review, there was one point I couldn’t quite fit in as I was crafting it, and that is the question: Knowing that Ford gives Bascombe an odd sense of humor, could the title be a double-entendre?

What do you think?


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