Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and
author biography that follow are meant to enliven your group's discussion of
Richard Ford's abundant, funny, sorrowful, and miraculously observed new novel,
The Lay of the Land.
About This Book
In The Lay of the Land, the author reintroduces readers to Frank Bascombe,
the protagonist of his earlier novels The Sportswriter and the Pulitzer
Prizewinning Independence Day. He is a man of mild aspect and strong,
sometimes violent feelings, capable of kindnesses both diligent and spontaneous
but also of flashes of cruelty and contempt. A native Southerner transplanted to
Michigan, the New Jersey suburbs, and lately the beach town of Sea-Clift ("NEW
JERSEY'S BEST-KEPT SECRET"); a one-time novelist turned sportswriter and then
realtor; a survivor of a divorce, the father of a dead son: Frank is living
testimony to the infinite renewability of American life (just as his career
speaks of the infinite renewability of American real estate). But Frank doesn't
want any more renewal. At 55, he's entered the Permanent Period, the "end to
perpetual becoming, to thinking that life schemed wonderful changes for me, even
if it didn't. It portended a blunt break with the past and provided a license to
think of the past only indistinctly (who wouldn't pay plenty for that?)" [p.
But as he prepares for the Thanksgiving weekend of the year 2000 and braces
himself for the aftershocks of an inconclusive presidential election, Frank
worries that his Permanent Period may be coming to an end. His wife Sally has
left him for her first husband, who was supposed to be dead; his first wife,
Ann, has decided that she's in love with him, again or still; his prostate has
sprouted cancer, which is being treated with radioactive BBs, and even his
daughter Clarissa, who faithfully shepherded him through his procedure and
recovery, is switching sexual preference. Add the ill-considered business plans
of his Tibetan business partner, the imminent arrival of his eccentric surviving
son, and a bomb going off at the hospital where he likes to eat lunch, and you
can understand why Frank would rather skip Thanksgiving, why he might rather
The fact that he doesn'tthat he shows up for every painful and absurd event of
this dizzyingly eventful novel and reports them all in a voice as confiding,
expansive, and laugh-out-loud funny as any in American fictionis something to
be grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving.
What do you make of the story that opens the novel: that of the
community college teacher who, before being gunned down by one of her
disgruntled students, was asked if she was ready to meet her maker and
replied "Yes. Yes, I think I am" [p. 3]. Why is Frank so riveted by this
question? How does he think he might answer in similar circumstances? What
does he mean when he says that "It's not a question . . . that suburban life
regularly poses to us. Suburban life, in fact, pretty much does the
opposite" [p. 4]? Is he right? How do the themes of death, self-accounting,
and the terrifying randomness of the American berserker recur throughout
The Lay of the Land?
What does Bascombe mean by the "Permanent Period?" When does he seem to
have entered it, and what events threaten to evict him from it? How serious
is he when he speaks of its pleasures? In the scheme of this novel, is
permanence the same thing as happiness? As resignation?
The Lay of the Land is set during Thanksgiving, as The
Sportswriter takes place at Easter and Independence Day over a July 4th
weekend. How does the holiday figure in the novel? How does Frank feel about
it, and how do the other characters appear to be celebrating it? Discuss the
novel's exploration of themes like gratitude, family, and abundanceas well
as the ambiguous meaning of "pilgrim."
What role does politics play in this novel, which occurs during the
long, inconclusive hangover of the 2000 presidential election? How does
Frank feel about the nation's current state of affairs? How do the other
characters feel, and to what extent are they characterized by their
politics? How does the outcome (or non-outcome) of the vote mirror events in
Frank's personal life?
What has prompted Frank to become a Sponsor, a member of a group "whose
goal is nothing more than to help people" [p. 12]? What sort of help does he
have in mind, and how does that correspond to what is actually asked of him
on his one Sponsorial visit? What does he get from his voluntarism, and how
do the services he performs as a Sponsor compare to his kindnesses as a
friend, business partner, father, or husband? How do they highlight his
failings and deficiencies? What does the very existence of an organization
like Sponsors suggest about
Americanor at least New Jerseyansociety in the year 2000?
What is the significance of Frank's career as a realtor? Which of his
character traits does it bring into relief? How does it cause him to see the
landscape and houses around him, and how does it cause other characters to
see him? What does "home" mean to a realtor, who makes his living selling
them? What might "home" mean to Frank's partner Mike Mahoney (né Lobsang
Dhargey), whose original one was in Tibet? Is home, as Frank can't keep from
going back to, though the air there's grown less breathable, the future's
over, where they really don't want you back, and where you once left on a
breeze without a rearward glance" [p. 14]?
Mike Mahoney's name, career-track, and politics suggest a core sample of
the American bedrock, except that, as previously mentioned, he happens to be
a Buddhist from Tibet. Has the American archetype become someone who was
once somebody (or something) else? In what ways are Mike and Frank similar?
Are Ford's characters constantly becoming new people or simply building
additions onto an original structure? And, if Mike represents a paradigm in
this novel, what do you make of Ann's statement, "We just have to be who we
are" [p. 377]?
Frank is a cancer survivor, a category whose ambiguity may be surpassed
only by the "suicide survivors" that so confuse Mike. How does Frank feel
about his condition, and particularly about where it has chosen to turn up
in his body?
What sort of father is Frank? Which of his surviving children does he
favor and for what reasons? To what extent is he still haunted by the death
of his first son? Why is he so unnerved when Clarissa, who only yesterday
was a straightforward lesbian, brings home a male "friend"? What might
account for Frank's embarrassment and irritation toward his son Paul and
Paul's occasional fury at him? Is Paul right when he accuses his father of "hold[ing]
everything . . . down" [p. 396]?
How does Frank relate to the women in his life? What sort of husband has
he been? How does he react to Ann's admission that she still loves him? How
has he dealt with his desertion by Sally, and to what extent may he have
been complicit in it? (What might it mean when your wife leaves you for a
dead man?) What do you make of his Sponsorial call to Marguerite Purcell and
of the fact that it transpires without either person alluding to their
long-ago sexual fling?
For all his relationships, Bascombe seems to be a fundamentally solitary
figure. Is this because Ford embeds us so deeply in his consciousness that
we experience the essential aloneness that is the hallmark of all
consciousness or because Frank really is solitary? What traits or
circumstances might make him so?
As its title suggests, The Lay of the Land is very much a novel about
place. How does Bascombe view his neck of New Jersey? How do his
observations about strip malls, McMansions, road houses, and human tissue
banks illuminate Bascombe's character? How do they comment on the novel's
action? Does Bascombe loathe the uniformity and ugliness of this
environment, or are his feelings about them more complex? Are the author's?
What is the significance of the fox that appears in one of the book's final
E. M. Forster famously summed up the difference between story and plot
as follows: "The King died, then the Queen died' is the story. The King
died, then the Queen died of grief' is the plot" [Aspects of the Novel,
chapter 5]. What is it that makes the seemingly haphazard events in this
novel cohere into a plot? What is the relation between that plot's hinges
(Frank's cancer, Sally's departure, Ann's confession, Clarissa's
disappearance, and Paul's arrival, not to mention the shattering denouement)
and its seemingly incidental moments?
Frank is both the novel's protagonist and its narrator. Every perception
and event is filtered through his voice. How would you characterize Frank's
voice? In what ways does it combine the casual and the literary, the comic
and the tragic?
Because The Lay of the Land deals with ordinary people engaged in
ordinary life in an environment that most readers will find familiar, it is
tempting to see it as a miniaturist novel. But its length, its eventfulness,
and the sheer, exuberant density of its observations suggest that it is also
a work of fictional maximalism like Bellow's Herzog or Joyce's
Ulysses (to which it sometimes alludes). Discuss these approaches to
fiction and the ways that Ford reconciles, or navigates, between them.
Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog; John Cheever,
Collected Stories, O What a Paradise It Seems; James Joyce,
Ulysses; Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita; Philip Roth, American Pastoral;
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn; John Updike, the Rabbit novels; Sloan
Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; Richard Yates, Revolutionary
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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