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Last updated: June 2, 2012 12:20 am
At dinner tonight, my seating companion is a former-supermodel-turned-American-TV-personality (there are more of these people than you think). On learning that I live in Maine (obscure north-east corner, frequently very cold), she says, “Oh, Maine! Is the pro-gay marriage amendment going to pass up there?” “Probably,” I say, “but I don’t much care.” Don’t get me wrong. I want everybody who wants to, to have a big church wedding, flowers, relatives, preacher etc, if that’ll make them happy and feel a part of things. My marriage feels secure if that kind of thing happens. I want men and women, blacks and whites, gay men, gay women, convicted felons, Down’s syndrome couples, Palestinians and Israelis to enjoy all the blessed benefits of togetherness. Good luck to all of us. I’ve voted for it and will again. But I really don’t much care about the whole subject or want to talk about it seriously at dinner.
Among the many things wrong with America (and plenty’s still right) is that we can’t seem to sort out the important issues from the unimportant ones. Our kids are dying in Afghanistan (and their kids too), Americans go hungry, we pollute the oceans at a rapid pace. But a quarter of our citizens are in a twist over Mitt Romney being a Mormon (rather than just a nitwit), and whether Barack Obama’s a Muslim, or even an American, or how much money Mark Zuckerberg’s making and losing in a day. If we knew the difference between what is important and what’s not, the election (in five months, now) might not be as close as it looks today.
. . .
Where stories come from: at dinner the next night I heard about a New York friend – married, mid-60s, nearly-grown kids – who has a young Austrian girlfriend in Vienna, where he keeps an office. The girlfriend, mid-20s, tells him she’s ready to have his baby. He says, “No way” – he already has two children, plus there’s his wife, and he’s too old. The girlfriend, however, buys a plane ticket to New York, where she’s never been, tells our friend she’s planning to pay his wife a surprise visit with the news of their affair. In a panic, my friend rushes home from Vienna, spills the entire kettle of beans to his wife, who instantly tosses him out, begins divorce proceedings, vows never to see or speak to him again. End of story. Goodbye life.
The question, then, is: what else could the guy have done? (Or, more to the writerly point, what would make a better story?) My version is: he doesn’t go home and blab it. He, instead, banks on it being a long plane flight from Vienna. Many things could cross a young girl’s mind en route. Does she really want to show up at a stranger’s house and change the course of many lives in one rash act? Where is Riverdale, anyway? Maybe she meets a handsome, young software salesman in the taxi queue at Kennedy, they share a ride into town, green cards are discussed, they have a nice dinner and wander off into the night. Better end to the story, since this way he at least has a chance.
. . .
On the Canada book tour, out across the wide expanses. Cameras now figure in the standard kit of people who come to have their books signed by me. The book is apparently not enough any more, nor am I. It’s perfectly all right. Though, most of the instruments focused on me and my grinning reader (a stranger’s help is always enlisted) don’t remotely remind me of a camera. Most look like sleek cigarette cases, or something you might carry your business cards in, or possibly a tampon. Plus, what will happen to these pictures? (Are they actually pictures?) I’ll probably never see them. They’ll almost certainly end up as one of those images that show up sideways or upside down or fuzzy-focused in someone’s inbox, like the ones emailed to me by my high-school friends, showing off their restored GTOs, or a snapshot with Elvis, or sometimes their private parts, or someone else’s. As a novelist, I’ve become the equivalent of a piece of minor Victorian statuary to a Japanese tourist with two minutes before the bus leaves. Perhaps whoever takes my picture will “shop” it; put Osama bin Laden’s head on my shoulders, or Mark Zuckerberg’s, or Lady Gaga, or Mitt Romney – all holding my novel. I could go viral.
. . .
“Let’s don’t tempt providence,” the pretty flight attendant says, smiling, as she reaches past me to hand a third glass of Côtes du Rhône to my seat-mate by the window. We’re on Air Canada to Vancouver. The flight attendant’s worried about spilling the wine. “Wait. Did you say, ‘Let’s don’t tempt providence’?” I ask, and look up at her. “I certainly did,” she answers and nods, pleased with herself. She’s 25, blonde, married, a Canadian, based in Toronto. We’ve ascertained all that by now. “Do you mean by that,” I ask, “that things are going good now, so let’s not tamper with them?” “Exactly,” she says, “My mum always says that. It’s our family mantra.” “Where did you grow up?” I ask. “Switzerland,” she says and looks dazzling. “Why did I know that?” I say. “Oh, you’re just a smarty,” she says.
Canadians say Toronto is just New York run by the Swiss. But, in an hour, our exchange has made me remember Alice James – brilliant, invalid sister to Henry and William – dead in her early forties, of a breast cancer she apparently welcomed. She wrote: “I shall proclaim that anyone who spends her life as an appendage to five cushions and three shawls is justified in committing the sloppiest kind of suicide at a moment’s notice.” Somehow the two lives fit together in my imagination. Don’t tempt providence.
. . .
I used to have such a good memory. (It’s what most novelists have instead of an imagination – though some are lucky and have both. Updike said the two were halls running parallel in the same house.) Much of my experience, however, has now become a kind of Etch A Sketch. Names, especially. The worst are the ones I can never remember. I bump into them over and over again like a bully in school: BB King’s hometown; that novelist from Seattle I met in Montana; the song with the great line Billie Holiday sings (“Who would, would you?”); whatever the name of the sultry blonde was who sang lead for Fleetwood Mac (Debbie Harry? No. That’s Blondie. Wrong blonde.)
It’s humiliating (and grim, and saddening) to find oneself seated on a park bench on a glorious spring afternoon going fruitlessly through the alphabet, hoping to pluck up a letter – like a leaf under which there might be the right name. “Sandy.” The woman who once showed me around Vancouver, 15 years ago. A miracle. On the other hand, a friend writes to me about a woman with “Superior Autobiographic Memory”. A horror story. Every detail of her life completely accessible from 14 years old onward: who she had dinner with the day before the Challenger explosion in 1986. What colour stockings she had on. What entrée she didn’t order. Bad memories and good ones too. Be careful what you wish for. Don’t tempt providence.
‘Canada’ by Richard Ford is published on June 7 (Bloomsbury, £18.99); review by Jason Cowley
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