Puppy by Richard Ford, 2001
The magic trick:
Deftly using first-person narration to expose flaws in the narrator and his wife
No, not the George Saunders’ puppy story. This is Richard Ford. We’re going to be looking at stories from his exceedingly gloomy A Multitude Of Sins collection this week. I’ll try not to be too gloomy in my posts.
I really like the narration in this story. It’s an interesting thing. Basically this is a story about people who live out narratives of happy, well-adjusted, good-doing people. But the truth might not be that simple, and they’re feeling the pressure because deep down they know they’re not quite living up to the ideal.
There is nothing particularly original about that setup, but usually (I think, at least) those kinds of stories are told by a third-person narrator, or at least by a first-person narrator at the periphery of the story (think Nick Carraway in Gatsby). “Puppy” is told in the first person by one of the main guilty parties.
It’s pretty nifty then by Ford to have this man tell his own story while also exposing a conflicted, flawed and selfish nature. I guess what you’d really need me to do for you at this point then is explain how he writes the character that way. Hmmm. I just don’t know. He ponders a lot about his own actions but he doesn’t seem to change them. He is exceedingly judgmental without addressing this character trait in his narration. Maybe the most interesting technique here is the use of dream. The narrator twice recalls dreams about his suspicions of an affair between his wife and a law partner. Tellingly, he never addresses these suspicions. There is much turmoil and tension under the surface of this “happy” world. And that’s quite a trick on Ford’s part.
In my dream Paul Thompson spoke to me and said, “How’s Sallie, Bobby?” I said, “Well, she’s fine, Paul, thanks,” because we were pretending he and Sallie didn’t have the affair I’d employed a private detective to authenticate—and almost did completely authenticate. The Liv Ullmann woman said nothing, just sat against the wooden sides of the blind seeming sad, with long straight blond hair. The little white-and-black puppy sat on the duckboard flooring and stared at me. “Life’s very fragile in the way we experience it, Bobby,” Paul Thompson, or his ghost, said to me. “Yes, it is,” I said. I assumed he was referring to what he’d been doing with Sallie. (There had been some suspicious photos, though to be honest I don’t think Paul really cared about Sallie. Just did it because he could.) The puppy, meanwhile, kept staring at me. Then the Liv Ullmann woman herself smiled in an ironic way.
“Speaking about the truth tends to annihilate truth, doesn’t it?” Paul Thompson said to me.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m certain you’re right.”