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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Why we'll all have to stomach the high-tech future of food

Lab-grown meat and veg may be unappetising, but our planet's survial may depend on it.

Imagine: you’re out shopping with a friend and you decide to stop and get some lunch. Just off the high street, you spot a restaurant advertising a burger deal and decide to go in. On the menu, however, you see something strange: all the items are apparently made with “future food”. Some sort of hipster gimmick?

You order your burger, and the waitress brings it over. It looks like all the other burgers you’ve eaten in your life, but as the waitress talks you through your meal, you realise that this restaurant is unusual.

The meat, she tells you, is made from lab-grown beef. The vegetables that sit on top of it have been produced in a temperature-controlled lab, under LED lights. “Five times faster than outdoors!” your waitress beams. Oh, and the chips are made from irradiated potatoes – but that’s nothing new: it’s been legal to sell irradiated food in the UK since 2009. “It stops the potatoes sprouting,” she explains.

If suddenly you feel like you don’t fancy the burger much, you’re not alone. Even the most forward-thinking consumer can find that the idea of lab-produced meals sticks in the throat – even if we understand, logically, that food technology can be a good thing.

According to a recent government study, only half of us believe we “will have to make more use of technology in food production”.

The process of growing meat provokes particularly strong reactions. It involves taking a small quantity of muscle cells from a living animal, which are then cultured in a mixture designed to support their growth. Done right, one muscle cell can turn into one trillion strands of muscle tissue.

Yet we may not have time to be squeamish. Studies suggest that a high proportion of greenhouse gases – anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on the research – is produced by the meat industry.

“This is really something that needs to be done in the next decade,” Shaked Regev, of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), tells me. “This is a critical point for humanity.” The MAF is a start-up developing what it calls “clean meat”. Regev, the foundation’s director, became involved in this area of research partly because he believes we urgently need to create new food technologies.

“This and other green initiatives are imperative. Some people say it’s for our grandkids – I say: I’m 27, and I’m going to see significant damage from climate change in my lifetime.”

Researchers in the field are confident that the public can overcome its distaste for lab-grown meat. “It will eventually be cheaper than the kind of chicken meat currently for sale, and consumers will flock to it,” says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy working on food ethics at North Carolina State University. “They flocked to milk made with bovine growth hormone [bGH], even though they reported being opposed to genetically modified foods, once they saw that the bGH milk was cheaper,” he says.

Yet even if people are happy to try new food technologies, does the best solution to the problems lie in our food culture? Studies show that fewer of us are cooking at home than ever before; young people in particular are becoming less familiar with the range of ingredients and where they come from. A 2012 poll by the charity Linking Environment and Farming found that 33 per cent of 16-to-23-year-olds were unable to identify hens as the source of eggs.

Comstock rejects the argument that developing food technologies will further obscure the origins of our food. “We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food,” he says. “Most of us have no idea about the conditions in which birds are grown and slaughtered.”

For Regev, young people are less of a problem and could even be a big part of the solution. Because their food habits are less entrenched, he says, young people will be more willing to try something new. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to accept this new technology, or new technologies in general.”

He reminds me, “We really don’t have time for a hundred-year social progress movement.” Better get biting that burger, then.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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