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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 19th, 2002


Multitude of Sins

by Richard Ford

A review by Stewart O'Nan

In his new collection of stories Richard Ford returns to territory he has worked before, most recently in Women With Men (1997) — a world of infidelity, selfishness, and self-deception. The theme is stated up front, in the first, brief, fablelike piece, "Privacy," whose narrator leaves his marriage bed to spy on a woman undressing in front of her window. "I don't know all that I thought," he ruminates. "Undoubtedly I was aroused. Undoubtedly I was thrilled by the secrecy of watching out of the dark." Nothing beyond this flutter of lust comes of it, and later he realizes how misplaced his desire really was. Looking back, he insists that his marriage was still happy then, but he alludes to a grave failure yet to come, as if this episode signaled the beginning of the end.

The stories that follow take the reader deeper into failed marriages and misguided love affairs, often uncomfortably so, asking if true intimacy is possible. Wales, the protagonist of "Quality Time," is so self-conscious, and so removed from the world, that he feels almost nothing for his married lover, let alone for a woman he sees run over on the street. Fear of self-revelation is a barrier for him, just as it is for Faith, in "Crèche," and for Henry Rothman, in "Dominion," yet it's so much the core of their personalities that it's impossible to overcome. As the narrator of "Puppy" says disparagingly of his wife, "She becomes involved in ways that are far too emotional. Distance is essential."

Throughout A Multitude of Sins a lack of trust comes between lovers, a holding back that interferes with any communion, dooming their indiscretions and ultimately leading — even as the affairs stagger on — to heavy regrets and ugly recriminations. Men and women alike are left groping for meaning, hoping that there's something significant in these faithless couplings. Ford undercuts the gloom and self-pity of his situations with irony and a resigned wisdom. Although his material is essentially similar across the collection, his approach is pleasantly varied. The anecdotal "Reunion" uses a plainspoken first person; "Charity" and the near novella-length "Abyss" have a quirky, deadpan humor; and "Crèche" relies on a montage of affectless passages.

Ford's achievement, though, isn't in the range of his palette but in how closely he focuses on the regrets of middle age, the hopes his characters still have, and the chances they take, aware that they may be fools, chasing after desires even they can't understand. Every decision is a risk that defines who they are at heart. As Ford says of the unhappy couple in "Dominion," "Ending it then would've meant something about themselves neither of them would've believed: that it hadn't mattered very much; that they were people who did things that didn't matter very much; and that they either importantly did or didn't know that about themselves. None of these seemed true." In A Multitude of Sins, Richard Ford's lovers come to uneasy terms with the impossibility of knowing each other and the inescapable pain of knowing oneself.

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