Beached: the east coast after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum
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Older than yesterday: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You

This fourth book in the Frank Bascombe series a volume that tempts the word “slight” but may deserve more. Like its narrator, it is easygoing, understated, articulate and occasionally surprising.

Let Me Be Frank With You  
Richard Ford
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £18.99

In Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford’s fourth Frank Bascombe book, the ageing hero of The Sportswriter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day informs us that he has reached what he calls the “Default Period of life”. This is defined by Frank’s “Default Self”, the self “I’d like others to understand me to be, and at heart believe I am: a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice”.

We need not have read the first three Bascombe novels to approach this hope with some doubt; familiarity with any modern narrator will do. But by the end one concludes that Frank has reached at least an accommodation with his Default Self; and to a certain extent this collection of stories is, for a writer of Richard Ford’s calibre, something of a Default Book. Let Me Be Frank With You consists of four linked stories told over one dark winter in New Jersey, as Frank surveys the damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the wreckage bequeathed by time.

The latest instalment of Frank’s narrative shows none of the signs of diminishing power that made Philip Roth’s last novels disappointing, nor even the gentle torpor of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. But Frank is slowing down; the book offers many quiet pleasures and if it shows little of the ambition that distinguished Independence Day, it has more control and discipline than the somewhat problematic third Bascombe book, The Lay of the Land.

Let Me Be Frank With You is a volume that tempts the word “slight” but may deserve more. Like its narrator, it is easygoing, understated, articulate and occasionally surprising. These interconnected stories feel at times like a novel manqué, rather as if, like its hero, the book never quite mustered the energy to achieve its potential. There is no real narrative arc, no escalating sense of urgency. Instead, Frank has four encounters with catastrophe: first, a return to the beach house destroyed by the storm and an unsettling meeting with the ungracefully ageing client to whom Frank sold it; then an African-American woman shows up at his house, bringing memories of violence and the realities of racial unrest in a far from post-racial America with her. In perhaps the finest of the tales, Frank visits his ex-wife, Ann, now suffering from Parkinson’s and living in an expensive care home. And in a carefully judged denouement Frank finds himself reluctantly visiting an old friend dying of pancreatic cancer, who has a discomfiting confession to make.

Frank has mellowed since the last instal­ment and, outwardly at least, has accustomed himself to the intimacy he once rejected (although the wife with whom he has reconciled since The Lay of the Land remains mostly an offstage presence). His recalcitrant thoughts continue to urge him towards resistance, withdrawal and renunciation but his actions betray him, as he finds
himself connecting with others despite his best – or worst – intentions.

Each tale is restrained, judicious and discerning and the book offers a catalogue of wry observations, such as: “Patience, though, is a prelapsarian concept in a post-lapsarian world.” Or: “I don’t look in the mirror any more. It’s cheaper than surgery.” Some remarks move beyond quips and into deeper apprehensions. One exceptionally pithy intimation of learned hopelessness, the spiritual weariness that may come with age, reads: “I try not to hope for too much . . . It puts pressure on the future at my age.” Later Frank admits, “It’s little enough to do for other humans – help them get their narrative straight. It’s what we all long for, unless I’m mistaken.” And finally he has the courage to offer a functional definition of love: “Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.”

Ford is known for the cadence and clarity of his prose but, on occasion, his ear seems to fail him here. Take the misjudged title, or Frank’s description of vertigo, which is rather vertiginous lexically: “The world’s azimuth just suddenly goes catty-wampus.” Ann’s obscenely expensive facility has the absurd name “Carnage Hill”. Some might raise an eyebrow at the idea that Frank lives next door in suburban New Jersey to a couple named the D’Urbervilles but there is a beautifully keyed decision, near the book’s end, to have Frank see his mailman, “who happens to be named Scott Fitzgerald” – as presumably some people are.

Bascombe’s anxieties are familiar to anyone who has read the expanding literature of ageing. Baby boomers have defined America’s literary experiences for decades. We had coming-of-age novels, then coming-of-middle-age novels; now we have coming-of-old-age novels. Frank has long insisted on his comfort with the banal, even as life threatens him with texture, depth and menace.

He still quotes Emerson but now it is to describe remoteness: this is what life looks like when the possibilities for romantic individualism have dwindled to nothing. Frank’s remoteness has become dispiriting, no longer compensated for by the richness of the writing or the splendour of the perceptions, except perhaps at a climactic moment, as Frank stands in Ann’s care home apartment. He looks out into a dark December night and imagines “the figure of a Yeti striding through the snowy frame of the picture window, pausing to acknowledge us bestilled within, shaking his woolly head in wonder, then continuing into the forest where he’s happiest”.

Here is the rich darkness being kept at bay, American literature shaking its head at suburbia, diving back into the inky forest that first defined it. 

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times