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« Ondaatje and Colonialism | Main | Pilgrimage: Going Out and In »

Space and CANADA

Among the forms of human expression, writing has the most trouble representing space--not only the boundaries between things but also the sense of emptiness, airiness, openness. Breathing room, if you will.

By contrast, painting is a spatial medium by definition. At its most basic, it presents a window, a framed opening onto an alternate world. Look at this gorgeous fresco by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence from the 1420s. It presents one of the first times figures are arranged in a defined spatial context; it thus became something of an ignition wire for Michelangelo and da Vinci, indeed for the Renaissance as a whole.

The figures are not static, immovable, serene, as they are in this earlier Duccio canvas to the right. The Madonna is fairly flat, immobile, calm; Jesus is almost weightless, no strain on her arms at all, almost levetating in her lap. But in Masaccio's vision, Jesus is extending his hand, the disciples are clotted willy-nilly around him, Peter is seen to the right and left, gathering some miraculous coins from a fish and giving them to the assessor on the other side. (This is a rare instance of a representation of Matthew 17:24-27--thanks to Jill Shallcross for that interpretation.) The disciples are put in perspective, arranged in a scene, made to exist in the world as if they have mass. (They don't--they're flat paint on a cold wall.) Duccio's figures float. Masaccio's are tied to the ground.

That all said, a novel has only the frame and the glass, no painting beyond the glass, no scene at hand. There are only the words, bound on the page. It's as if a writer taps the glass in a window repeatedly and says "look at this." You look at the glass (the words) and you're supposed to see the alternate world--when the glass and the frame are truly all. The rest must be made in your imagination.

So writing has spatial problems that film and painting and sculpture and theater and even music do not. Writing can become airless, tight, constricted--under glass, as it were. (Music, in fact, may be the ultimate spatial medium because its raison d'être is the gap between the notes. Without the gaps, the notes would all sound at once, a big blat of sound. In other words, music is about the silence between the notes. But that's a philosophical discussion, best saved for another day.)

Richard Ford is a master of space. CANADA feels as if it has air, has openness, despite the dread at every turn. In fact, its sense of space may be one of the keys to keeping the dread "doable" for us readers. Think of that great scene in chapter 33, when the Parsons have been arrested and Rudy comes to the house. Berner makes him a burned, still-frozen steak; Dell dances with him in the living room. The whole scene is dripping with dread. And yet it's easy to read, goes down quickly. You don't bog down in the fear. Instead, you almost skim along through the words--or on the glass.

Indeed, CANADA is about space on many levels: the blank openness of Saskatchewan and Montana, the space between the twins Dell and Berner, the spaces inside Dell's consciousness. I'd like us to think about space and the novel: how does Ford do it so successfully? And what does space mean for the novel?

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