Pictures

Phil Ford

Here are parts one and two of this story.

Mark, one of our regular commenters, wrote that he guessed my emotions on discovering my father in the pages of a Margaret Atwood novel were “a mix of dread and weird elation.” This is exactly right. Elation to find something of my Dad that had escaped the grave; dread as I started reading The Edible Woman and saw that it was his least pleasant qualities that had been preserved.

An example: Marian, the protagonist, has gone over to Peter’s apartment and Peter is trying to maneuver her into a bathtub:

I couldn’t quite figure out the bath tub. I thought back to the other two unfortunate marriages. After the first, it had been the sheepskin on his bedroom floor, and after the second a scratchy blanket in a field we’d driven four hours to get to, and where I was made uneasy by thoughts of farmers and cows. I suppose this was part of the same pattern, whatever the pattern was. Perhaps an attempt to assert youthfulness and spontaneity, a revolt against the stale doom of stockings in the sink and bacon fat congealed in pans evoked for him by his friends’ marriages. Peter’s abstraction on these occasions gave me the feeling that he liked doing them because he had read about them somewhere, but I could never locate the quotations. The field was, I guessed, a hunting story from one of the outdoorsy male magazines; I remember that he had worn a plaid jacket. The sheepskin I placed in one of the men’s glossies, the kind with lust in pent-houses. But the bathtub? Possibly one of the murder mysteries he had read as what he called “escape literature”; but wouldn’t that rather be someone drowned in the bathtub? A woman. That would give them a perfect bit to illustrate on the cover: a completely naked woman with a thin covering of water and maybe a bar of soap or a rubber duck or a blood-stain to get her past the censors, floating with her hair spread out on the water, the cold purity of the bathtub surrounding her body, chaste as ice only because dead.

Finding a parent in flagrante delicto is a famously unpleasant experience, but imagine having this experience in reading a novel. I’m quoting this passage, though, because it seems to me that here Atwood really nailed something about my father: the degree to which his real life was bound up in his imaginative life, the degree to which he was a creature of the books he read. I’ve already written of his affectation of Kingsley Amis’s hard-bitten misogynist pose — which, you’ll notice, is embedded in Atwood’s description of Peter’s horror of his friends’ marriages. Later, Peter is hung over after his friend Trigger’s wedding party and in a “teeth-grinding” mood he refuses to be humored out of. Asked about the wedding, he launches a “disjointed monologue” in which

Trigger was made to sound like the last of the Mohicans, noble and free, the last of the dinosaurs, destroyed by fate and lesser species, and the last of the dodos, too dumb to get away. Then he attacked the bride, accusing her of being predatory and malicious and of sucking poor Trigger into the domestic void (making me picture her as a vacuum cleaner), and finally ground to a halt with several funereal predictions about his own solitary future. By solitary he meant without other single men.

Peter understands his life through a jumble of literary sources, a patchwork of metaphors sewn into a story of masculine grandeur under siege. What makes me really uneasy in Atwood’s characterization of Peter is that there’s no person under the poses; Peter is a textual creature all the way down. Whatever inner life he has is just bits and pieces scissored out from this movie or that book and glued together with animal lusts for blood and possession. (Peter loves guns as well as cameras and at one point tells a nasty story about a rabbit hunt with sadistic relish — again, very true to life. My Dad was a dead-eye shot and proud of his prowess with guns.) Atwood uses Peter’s fetish for photography as a way to picture how a man might posses and consume a woman. By the end, Marian comes to believe that being shot by Peter’s camera will capture and fix her in place forever, and she runs away from a party to get away from him. “Behind her even now Peter might be tracing, following, stalking her through the crisp empty streets as he had stalked the guests in the living room, waiting for the exact moment. That dark intent marksman with his aiming eye had been there all the time, hidden by the other layers, waiting for her at the dead centre: a homicidal maniac with a lethal weapon in his hands.” The “lethal weapon” is the camera, not the gun, but by the end of the book it’s hard to tell them apart. I’ve read academic interpretations of the camera motif in The Edible Woman as a critique of the phallocentric male gaze, etc., which it doubtless is, but it turns out that it’s also rather less than that: just a portrait from life.

When I discovered my father in The Edible Woman, I thought that this was all very “postmodern” (a word thrown around with great freedom in the gilded-age late 1990s). Here was a man whose inner life was text, and when he died what he left behind was also text. Ashes to ashes; words we are, and to words we shall return: we are textual creatures all the way down. But this was glib and wrong. We have souls. My father had a soul.

One happy childhood memory: my father has allowed me into his inner sanctum, the holiest of holies, the darkroom. It was a little room at the back of the basement, a windowless cave with a heavy green plastic curtain over it, partitioned behind the rumpus room where we kept the TV. I remember the shelves full of trays, enlargers, carboys, and all the other mysterious tools by which pictures could be made to appear on sheets of paper. And I remember this one time my father allowed me back there to see this magic happen under the red darkroom light. Nothing special about it, really, but I remember how proud I felt to be shown this, to be allowed into that little part of my Dad’s life where he felt free and happy, allowed to share the ingenuous pleasure he took in the elementary magic of pictures.

He did not take pictures to possess them, and though he did have a certain geeky gadget fetish (which Atwood mocks), his pictures were not fetishes, not simply material surrogates for real things, real relationships, and real meanings. The ones I hang on my walls are landscapes of the harsh Northern Ontario
landscape I grew up in. My father’s pictures made this bitter place
poetic. They were love letters to real things in the world: not textual things, but real things, things in their stubborn mute there-ness. The things my father photographed gained meaning through being seen, and seen with love — the kind of love he had a hard time finding for things he saw when they weren’t bracketed by a viewfinder. Framing an image with his camera, he could experience things in a state where they wanted nothing of him and he wanted nothing of them, where it was enough for something simply to exist, and be beautiful, and leave a trace on paper, a pattern of light and shade.

When we die, what’s left of us are the memories of the people who loved
us. My father left me some of his pictures, pictures
that, like my memories, lend persisting form to his soul.

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About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Pictures

  1. heather says:

    This is so interesting.
    I never take Peter SERIOUSLY in The Edible Woman. I perceive him as a 2-dimensional stereotype of a certain kind of masculinity…he’s all pose and accoutrements (martini glass, etc), and the threat he poses to Marian is in her head. At the end Marian has this epiphany that he’s utterly banal and not at all dangerous; he simply represented the mindless bourgeois life and values that her culture expects her to embrace. His desire to “capture” or “consume” her wasn’t personal, it was structural – marriage and suburbia “consume” women’s individuality. (Atwood makes it clear that Marian and Peter don’t love each other, they just regard each other as appropriate for the role of Wife and Husband.) You get the impression that he will end up with a sensible, shallow, bourgeois girl (one of the ‘Office Virgins”) and they’ll be perfectly happy, perfectly matched in their shallowness and conventionality.
    Maybe it’s necessary for the book’s comedy that he turn out to be a fraud, no real threat…and also that he’s only a “threat” to Marian because she turns out to be special and different. There is nothing in the book to suggest that his next fiance will suffer in her relationship with him… HE’S not the “monster,” the system is.
    None of the men in the book are truly dangerous, actually…the book’s feminist-comic vision insists that women’s suffering comes from their mindless conformity to the system and NOT from outside.

  2. heather says:

    P.S. Your dad’s photos are beautiful.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Heather — what you say is quite true, I think. “All pose and accoutrements” is a good description of Peter’s basic nullity. Peter is really a basically harmless version of the main character of “American Psycho,” Patrick Bateman. Actually, I’ve never read Brett Easton Ellis’s novel, but the film is very good. At the beginning of the movie there’s a voice-over, apparently taken from a couple of passages in the novel, that gets at the heart of this strange confluence of elaborate material surfaces and inner emptiness:
    “I have all the characteristics of a human being– skin, hair, bones– but not one recognizable human emotion, other than greed and disgust. There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense that our lifestyles are probably comparable, I am simply not there.”

  4. Mark says:

    My nostalgic version of the darkroom would be the wood shop.
    The photos are evocative. I can imagine the colors: the grays, whites, dark greens and blues, even though the photos are in black and white. The quality of light is different at northern latitudes.
    I hope to say hi in Seattle (my abstract was accepted!!).

  5. Phil Ford says:

    Hey, that’s great! We should grab a drink there. EMP’s a good time.

  6. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Thanks again, Phil – and his photos are extremely beautiful.
    You mention that after we die, what’s left is others’ memories of us. Kaija Saariaho’s new string quartet, Terra Memoria, addresses that in musical form.

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