Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Turns out I really like Ron Hansen. I love his short story "Wickedness" and his novel Mariette in Ecstasy and this novel...but I just only now realized the same person wrote all three. I'm not sure why I didn't put it together; he has a fairly distinct manner in which he lists characters, detailing one for a paragraph then the next for a paragraph then the next...lots of people in his fiction. And he tends to use a really flat but really specific voice. It's not emotionally colored--except I guess for the fact that flat tends to feel sad--but it always names things properly. The trees get their right name, the architectural details get their right name, anatomy gets its right name...

Anyway, I didn't know about this novel until I saw the Casey Affleck movie (some might be inclined to call it the Brad Pitt movie, but in this case the coward is way more interesting than the hero) that came out last year. And the voice-overs (why do voice-overs get such a bad rap in movies; I like them when they use language well) were so good that I thought they had to be lifted right from a novel. Turns out they were, and not only that but the dialogue was too. I mean right from page to stage (okay, screen). And it made me realize how strong Hansen is in both narration (third, past) and in scene. The dialogue makes these guys quite funny--the very puppyish qualities of Robert Ford come out mostly in what he says--but the narration makes the book serious and sad. It's like having a comic relief character in a drama--except all these guys feel like comic relief in an otherwise serious situation and setting. And the narration is actually mostly action and setting--just a detailed description of what everyone's doing and where they're doing it. But it really increases the scope and does a good job of implying the complexity of these characters (it doesn't speculate much on why they do what they do but it suggests a lot about their visions of masculinity and government and family).

One of the things that mystified me about the novel was how Hansen gets away with the old-timey language that he throws in quite often. It works; I just don't know why it works. I mean I know the setting is the Ye Old West, but the old-fashioned speech could just have easily sounded fake and silly.


The judge said...

Haven't read the novel, though I saw the film and liked it. I thought its title was meant to be ironic, calling Robert Ford a coward.

Throughout, Ford was the only one wiling to confront James. And while Ford shot James in the back, James had done the same or worse to much more helpless characters. So, I thought the film was a study in how mythos can grip a society, even when it's counterproductive to society's best interests.

I enjoyed the film, though. I don't know why it got bad reviews.

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

I liked the film too, though it made the mistake of trying to do everything the book did so it ran rather long. The title is definitely the language of the myth (not necessarily the judgement of the author), and a large part of the novel is about how Ford's life is ruined by an act that he thought would make him a hero. But the novel, and I think the film too, seems to take the position that life is not so simple in terms of coward vs hero. It's not honorable to have shot James the way he did or for the reasons he did, but neither is James honorable. So yes it's definitely about the insane mythos but also about how right and wrong actions aren't always clear especially when motivations are taken into account. James is given good motivations for bad actions by his worshippers (in myth he is a Robin Hoodlike figure which he wasn't) but Ford is given bad, motivations (in fact the same ones that actually push James: fame and fortune) for the "right" act of stopping James. And the novel makes clear that James is losing it at that point, really cracking up. So it's Ford taking him down at his weakest moment--back turned, kids and wife in the house, rest of the gang already destroyed, and completely nutty. So the novel gets to have more than one idea to it.