Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
I am a great fan of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), and for our two-car caravan from Cambridge to Michigan, my wife Alene gave me the audio tape of Ford's 2003 collection of short stories A Multitude of Sins, most of which I listened to on the way. The stories are mostly about infidelity (and of that infidelity, mostly marital), but many of the characters are lawyers. Why that is so could be the subject of another entire post, but Jackson Browne may also have had an insight.
One of the stories had a coda so moving that I replayed it several times, and I stopped at a Borders to buy a copy of the book just to read it again. In "Calling," the narrator recounts an incident from his New Orleans boyhood, in 1961, when he was sixteen and home from a Florida military school. His father, the product of an Uptown society family, has been out of the house for a year, having been expelled from the hundred year old law firm that bears the family name, and now lives in St. Louis with his homosexual partner. His mother, an aspiring singer, has taken as her lover a black jazz musician who by day purports to be the caretaker for the family home. As in much of Ford's writing, not much happens; instead we experience what happens through the minds of the participants, as if in slow motion, dissecting the nanoseconds in which thoughts occur. The incident here is a duck hunting excursion with father and son in the bayou, and what happens is not important to my point.
This is the part that that I replayed:
That morning represented just the first working out of the particulars I would observe evermore. Like my father, I am a lawyer. And the law is a calling which teaches that most of life is about adjustments, the seatings and reseatings we perform to accommodate events occurring outside our control and over which we might not have sought control in the first place. So that when we are tempted, as I was for an instant in the duck blind, or as I was through all those thirty years, to let myself become preoccupied and angry with my father, or when I even see a man who reminds me of him, stepping into some building in a seersucker suit and a bright bow tie, I try to realize again that it is best just to offer myself release and to realize I am feeling anger all alone, and that there is no redress. We want it. Life can be seen to be about almost nothing else sometimes than our wish for redress. As a lawyer who was the son of a lawyer and the grandson of another, I know this. And I know not to expect it.
Control (or imagined control) over contingency is a theme to which I return over and over again in my own writing. We have a predisposition to find order in chaos, and the model offered by the law is only one of many. We resist the idea of meaninglessness (or entropy of meaning?), whether by means of natural law, or by a faith in the naturalistic regularities of science. Redress is a model of satisfaction, but it is not satisfaction.