Wednesday, May 23, 2012


 Yesterday morning I read Lorrie Moore's review of Richard Ford's new novel in The New Yorker. It's a lovely review, just a bit edgy, rich with quotes from the novel and interesting comments by Moore, a novelist herself.

"Opening in Montana in 1960, "Canada" is a story told by Dell Parsons, the son of a retired Air Force pilot and a schoolteacher—parents who have turned hapless bank robbers and who are quickly apprehended and sent to jail. Dell also has a twin sister, named Berner. 'Berner and I were fraternal twins—she was six minutes older—and looked nothing alike.'"

This last sentence sends Moore over a parenthetical cliff: "(Twins who are not the same sex are always fraternal, not identical; that a narrator would stop to explain this is unfortunate and a mistake, perhaps of the proofreading variety, that it would be goo no longer to see in a novel.)"

Yes, I thought. Of course, I thought. She's got a point, I thought, scratching my head. But there's something not quite right between these parentheses.

In the late afternoon a UPS truck brought a copy of the novel, preordered (as they say so awkwardly) several months ago. And I sat down to read.

As promised, Dell Parsons is the narrator. On pages 14-15 I arrived at the offending sentence and its context: "Berner, by this time, had begun not to be so easy to get along with. . . . Berner and I were fraternal twins—she was six minutes older—and looked nothing alike. She was tall, bony, awkward, freckled all over—left-handed where I was right-handed—with warts on her fingers. . . . I sometimes found myself thinking of Berner as an older boy. Other times I wished she looked more like me so she'd be nicer to me, and we could be closer. Though I never wanted to look like her."

Moore is right about the doubling up of information. She's wrong about it being unfortunate and a mistake. It has nothing to do with proofreading. It's a window into the narrator's fervent hope never to look like his sister. Stating that they are twins might lead a reader not as perspicacious as Lorrie Moore (and there are plenty such readers in Great Falls, Montana where Dell spends some adolescent years, and elsewhere as well) to assume he and his sister are identical and thus equally as warty and so Dell hurries to add to the twin information that they are fraternal and that they look nothing alike. Even a Great Falls kind of reader is apt to understand the important fact if it is repeated three times.

If Moore had read the book to the end, or had paid better attention to the ending, she would have found this further assertion: "Berner had begun drumming her fingers on the table top. When I looked at her plain, waiting face, it was without expression, though her jaw muscles were agitating. Her eyes had grown shiny. We looked nothing like rather other now in a different way" (414). Dell, even as a 66-year-old man retiring from teaching high school and beginning to write the story that is the novel, finds it important to note he is a fraternal twin different from his sister.

Having solved the problem of the parentheses, I turn back to the handsome book.

p.s. Michiko Kakutani reviews the book in the New York Times (Tuesday, May 22) and concludes that the novel is "naggingly schematic" with "static exposition" and is finally a "deeply flawed novel."

I can't even fathom such categorical judgments. How can a critic know anything but how he or she responds to a work? Who can still believe in Platonic absolutes and their own ability to pronounce them?

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