Chapter 72: “Independence Day” by Richard Ford (1996)

“…the worst thing about regret is that it makes you duck the chance of new regret, just as you get a glimmer that nothing is worth doing unless it has the potential to fuck up your whole life.”

IndependenceDayNovelThe past few days have seen Chicago transform into a wintry hellscape. Social media networks have dubbed it “Chiberia”. With wind chills figured in, temperatures dipped all the way down to 41 degrees below zero, making it incredibly dangerous to go outside even for ten minutes.

Because of the extreme weather and severe risk of hypothermia and frostbite, a lot of workplaces shut down—mine included. Having a few days off work unexpectedly, I decided to tick another Pulitzer off the list.

Inspired by the warmth of Summer sun, I picked up Richard Ford’s 1996 winner, Independence Day.

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I mistakenly read Joshua’s reaction to this book before I started writing mine; it was foolish, and now I find myself struggling with the consequences of my folly – his response to this novel was so accurate, I’m not sure what else to say about it. I particularly agree with Joshua’s assessment that it took Richard Ford 450 pages to “say absolutely nothing about anything at all”.

I think there are a number of directions Ford could have gone over the course of the story, but, instead, chose to idle in neutral – which is a curious choice for a “road trip novel.” Throughout the book, it seems that Ford is completely ambivalent towards his characters and is a very lazy storyteller, which is very, very surprising given how calculated, precise, and controlled his writing actually is.

Even though his writing is longwinded and clever and expository, there’s a succinctness to it. He seldom overdoes it. Having said that, though, what he writes are just words. Words linking to other words in a long, long, long string of words. Rather than telling a story that goes anywhere or leads to anything or, even, sets anything up, his words just develop his characters more and more and more, but in different settings.

“Here are Frank Bascombe’s thoughts on politics while he’s in his office. Here are his other thoughts on politics in the car. This is how he feels when he’s collecting rent from his tenants, and this is how he feels when he’s talking to his girlfriend on the phone. These are the ways he feels detached from everyone and everything around him when he’s trying to connect with his son and these are the ways he feels detached from everyone and everything around him when he’s dealing with his ex-wife.”

And these thoughts and feelings of his? They never change.

And the worst part of this fact? Frank Bascombe is awful. He’s a faux-sophisticate (fauxphisticate?), he’s a jerk, he’s self-centered, he’s egotistical, and he never changes. He’s kind of a dick at the beginning of the book and he’s kind of a dick at the conclusion of the book. There’s no growth whatsoever. It takes 450 pages of dense reading and Frank dragging the other characters through the dirt with him and bogging down their lives to get there – more or less exactly where we began on page 1.

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And what’s so infuriating about this book is that it has such a solid premise: Frank Bascombe is going to connect with his troubled teenager son during an Independence Day road trip to sports halls of fame with nothing more than conversation, sports, and a book about the Declaration of Independence.

With that setup, I’m expecting emotional breakthroughs, crystallizing moments in which characters learn something about themselves and change their ways, catalysts of improvement and betterment, profound statements on the concept of independence or the lack thereof, or at least some kind of moral to the story.

But, no – I didn’t get any of that. In fact, I got nothing.

With such a display of ambivalence, I’m forced to ask of Ford, “How do you expect me to care about anybody in this book when you so clearly don’t?”

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I’m not going to be coy about this – I hated Independence Day. Hated it. Despised it, even. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it was such a waste of my time.

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