Beached: the east coast after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum
Show Hide image

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

David Brent: Life on the Road
Show Hide image

Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.