A Multitude of Sins

by Richard Ford
278 pages,
ISBN: 0676974147

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Affairs Without Heart
by Cindy MacKenzie

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford has written a collection of ten short stories organized on the theme of adulterous love that does not moralize about the "sin" of infidelity even though it tells the story of such affairs over and over. The "sin" is found in the debasement of the spirit of love. And each of these stories comprises the "multitude of sins" committed¨not the adultery, the voyeurism, the private fantasies indulged in¨but the detachment of the "lovers"¨too powerful a word to describe them really¨as they are either too afraid to feel love or too filled with a cynicism directed as much towards themselves and their actions as towards their lovers. Painfully self-conscious in their observations of what they've become involved in, the narrators "objectify" their experiences in a way that emphasizes the lack of spontaneous and complete self-abandon that usually accompanies passion. The cool superficiality of the players in these relationships seems to arise from a brand of sophistication effected by their long-practised habit of withholding genuine emotion. No one perishes of a broken heart¨although people do, indeed, perish. Ford's stories define modern realism¨the characters demonstrating the effects of modern isolation and alienation in a soberly detached and unromantic account of their indiscretions.

Beginning with "Privacy", Ford's male narrators observe themselves as much as they observe others. Emphasizing the cold and dark setting in which a husband and wife of ten years live, the narrator, who is also suffering from the impotency of Šwriter's block,' is aroused by watching a woman in the apartment across from him disrobe and Šenact a languid, ritual dance' each night. His own ritual is made even more titillating by the fact that his wife is in a deep sleep nearby. The brevity of this story is appropriate in driving home the impact of the concluding scene when the narrator finds himself face to face with the woman of his fantasy. In a bitterly ironic and self-mocking moment of enlightenment, the narrator feels betrayed by his surprising discovery of her age and race. As he suffers from the harsh impact of disillusionment, his life enters, as he puts it, "the long cycle of necessity," characterized by disappointment, impotency, and disaffection.

Moments of enlightenment in this collection are always bitter¨not warmly illuminating or hopeful. Ford's plotline and his prose hammer out the story and hammer down the reader's feelings. The betrayals are self-directed, emphasizing the self-deception that motivates these futile liaisons in the first place. The sin often lies in the boredom, in the ennui as that provokes such questions as Jena's to her lover in "Quality Time": "If I asked you to kill my husband, would you do it?" The carelessness of the statement reflects the superficiality of her feelings¨was it simply something to say to provoke a response, some Šreal' feeling¨like rock star Madonna's infamously pornographic game-made-into-movie "Truth-or-Dare"? There is no relationship between these Šlovers' in the end¨barely even the mention of the passion of clandestine sex¨only the commodification of human emotions.

No more impassioned by the love for another than what they seek to replace, the characters in these stories are like the "living dead," so detached and alienated from one another as to make them feel disembodied. The theme of modern alienation in urban society is reflected in their attitude to their own deceptive actions. Freed of accountability by anonymity, they have no fear of having to deal with the ramifications of their affairs. After a highly uncomfortable meeting with his lover's husband in the streets¨in which Mack Folger gives an emotionless account of the present unhappy circumstances of his family members¨the narrator in "Reunion" ends by admitting that "none of it was a good thing to have done" but draws considerable comfort from the fact that "it is such a large city here, so much larger than say, St. Louis, that I knew I would not see him again."

The theme and tone of the collection calls to mind Sharon Olds's well-known poem "Sex Without Love"¨"how do they do it?" the speaker asks, "the ones who make love without love?" The poem's images repeat the idea of the self-interest of each lover, the impermeability of the lover to the "wound" of love¨calculating their "satisfaction":

"They do not / mistake the lover for their own pleasure, / they are like great runners: they know they are alone / with the road surface, the cold, the wind, / the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-/ vascular health ű just factors, like the partner in the bed, and not the truth, which is the / single body alone in the universe / against its own best time." But what is lost in this selfishness that could be gained by selflessness? Are these the questions that Olds asks here and Ford points toward in his collection of "love" stories of the modern urban sophisticate?

In the much longer and more complex "Abyss", the events of a rendez-vous take a bizarre twist as the lover/narrator's partner falls into the Grand Canyon while transgressing the cautionary signs. The tragedy acts as a kind of mocking commentary on the foibles of these adulterous laisons¨the transgression of moral laws is paralleled by transgression of social laws¨the headstrong woman ignores signs cautioning tourists to stay behind the fenced area¨but in her self-centered desire to have her photo taken without the obstructing fence in the way, the woman dares to step over the boundaries, and causes her own destruction. Her lover is immediately concerned about his own exposure¨a kind of irritation¨not real concern for either the recovery of her body or his love for it. The theme of story is neatly introduced at the outset with the narrator coming across a dead animal. What follows is the death of a pedestrian, and finally the death of his "lover". But what has really died in this story? What has "fallen into the abyss"?

"Dominion" is particularly interesting to Canadian readers because the love affair in this story is between a Canadian woman and an American man. The idea seems to emphasize questions of identity as the story dissolves into a hostile confrontation between the husband and the lover with accusations based on steroetypical "differences" between the two cultures that end in a surprisingly ironic revelation¨that the identity of the "Canadian" husband has been falsely assumed. Self-deception is at the root of all of the betrayals in Ford's stories which suggests that if we must love ourselves fully in order to love another, the fundamental problem lies in our inadequate knowledge of ourselves, a fact that results in a much more profound state of alienation.

While I admire Ford's artistry, the stories themselves tend to leave me with a feeling of hopelessness and sadness. I am forced to consider time and again the degradation of romance and the profound isolation we feel from others. Unable to place our faith in another, Ford suggests that we enact mechanical sexual relations and make emotional compromises of an enormity far surpassing the kind of necessary compromises attending genuine love. With such a cynical attitude, we give up on experiencing one of the most fundamentally fulfilling of human experiences. ˛


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