Historians write of the birth of nations and the death of empires. But what about the life stages in between? You don’t usually hear about Slovakia’s awkward adolescence, Turkmenistan’s sexual prime, or Bhutan’s dawning senility, though these stages exist in the lives of republics just as they do in our own. The problem is the necessity of historical perspective: While births and deaths tend to be clearly marked, the intervening phases can be difficult to determine in the moment. Most nations—like most people—tend to think of themselves as in their prime or, if not, then enduring a brief, temporary trough before a vaunted return to glory.
This, at least, is how Frank Bascombe describes America’s self-image in the early pages of Independence Day. The year is 1988, and Bascombe, a real-estate agent in suburban New Jersey, is enduring the lingering effects of the stock-market crash of 1987. “Staying the course,” he says, “holding the line, riding the cyclical nature of things are what this country’s all about.”
Riding the cyclical nature of things is also what Frank Bascombe’s life is all about. Independence Day is a novel about middle age, though Bascombe, 44 years old, shuns the term. He prefers the more stately “Existence Period.” His greatest mistakes and triumphs have faded into the past, a reasonable degree of comfort has been attained, and his life quietly glides along. Having graduated from the turmoil of The Sportswriter, the aging Bascombe is content to have entered “a time of waning urgency,” of drifting or floating, marked by modest expectations and humble satisfactions. “Best” is long gone; “fine” is more than sufficient.
No event in Independence Day greatly troubles this status quo. There are no major crises, apart from the medical scare at the end of the novel when Bascombe’s teenage son is beaned in the eye with a baseball (he turns out fine). Bascombe must negotiate a romantic entanglement, but it is not particularly passionate or fraught—a relationship of convenience and sober comforts more than a love affair. Bascombe’s son is having troubles, though his transgressions are not particularly severe (eccentric outbursts and minor shoplifting), and the father-son relationship remains strong. Much of the plot concerns the fraught housing search by a middle-age couple, the Markhams, but the outcome is never much in doubt, and the stakes for Bascombe, their agent, are low. “I enjoyed being on the periphery of the business community,” he remarks, “even if I didn’t need the money, still don’t work that hard and don’t always earn a great deal.”
Where story might have been, Ford substitutes description—effusive quantities of it, much of it startling and vivid, much of it extraneous. At a rest stop in upstate New York, for instance, we read about the sandstone parapet marking the scenic overlook, the distant figure of a farmer on a tractor in a distant emerald field, and a nearby trashcan, overflowing pale-green kernels of Styrofoam popcorn. There are catalogues of other rest stops, long drives, voicemail messages, gleaned newspaper articles, strangers in public spaces, place names and architectural details of houses for sale. Bascombe is reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance, and seems to have taken to heart Emerson’s metaphor of the “transparent eyeball,” absorbing all of reality and seeking in it the currents of the Universal Being. For 450 pages, we float with him on the contrails of middle-age stasis. There are moments when Bascombe, or one of his fellow Existence Period denizens, seem on the edge of revelation, but more often than not the bubble deflates. “One of the Existence Period’s bedrock paradoxes,” writes Ford, “is that just when you think you’re emerging, you may actually be wading further in.” And wade in we do, as Ford submerges us in the minutia of Frank Bascombe’s holiday weekend.
The most precise articulation of the novel’s ideology can be found in Bascombe’s life advice to his son. He warns the boy not to become “the critic of your age,” not to act eccentrically or object to the general way of things. Instead, says Bascombe, “You have to let some things go.” Other values Bascombe espouses include: “stay a little gullible,” “get married and be as monogamous as possible,” and “Maybe buy a house near the water in Washington state, so I could come visit.” As with his real-estate clients, Bascombe hopes to pilot his son “toward a reconciliation with life.” Transcendence is off the table, as is the glory that can only be won by defeating great foes. Comfort, optimism, and cheerfulness are the best that can be expected.
Among the subjects that recur in Bascombe’s conversations and thoughts is the 1988 presidential election. His sympathies are with Michael Dukakis, “spirit-genius of the sinister Massachusetts Miracle” and he can only ridicule the “clownish” Vice President Bush, but the uncertain outcome of the election does not trouble him severely. He follows the campaign with about the same level of engagement as he did the contests he wrote about as a sports journalist: dispassionately, with interest in the spectacle, but without heartache or anxiety. In this way Bascombe was like most Americans that year: Voter turnout in 1988 was the lowest in any presidential election since 1924. The Cold War fading, the republic was adrift, listless, uninspired—qualities embodied by both presidential candidates. America had entered its own Existence Period, happy to float along in relative comfort, as if resigned to Bascombe’s conclusion that “it gets harder and harder to believe you can control anything via principle or discipline, though we all talk as if we can.”
In the novel’s coda, an old acquaintance remarks that, in his youth, “ideas dominated the world… Now I can’t even think of a single new big idea, can you?” Bascombe cannot, and neither man seems particularly troubled by their failure to do so. Shrugging, Bascombe heads to a July 4th parade on Constitution Street, happy to join the weaving, patriotic crowd, marching along to the beat of the same drum. “It is not,” declares Bascombe, “a bad day to be on earth.” There is a victory in this, to be certain, but it is a victory indistinguishable from defeat.
Other notable novels published in 1995:The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. BoyleInterstate by Stephen DixonAmerican Tabloid by James EllroyThe House on the Lagoon by Rosario FerréWhat I Lived For by Joyce Carol Oates
Pulitzer Prize:The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
National Book Award:Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
Bestselling novel of the year:The Rainmaker by John Grisham
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2020. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.—Nathaniel Rich
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon 1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson 1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis 1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell 1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin 1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux 1992—Clockers by Richard Price 2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London 1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather 1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton 1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West 1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles 1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs 1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy 1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman 1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright 1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle 2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus 1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James 1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington 1924—So Big by Edna Ferber 1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara 1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith 1954—The Bad Seed by William March 1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton1915—Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman1925—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos1935—Pylon by William Faulkner1945—If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes1955—Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov1965—The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick1975—The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey1985—White Noise by Don DeLillo