January 26, 2012
Blog time is faster than real time. How else to explain that it’s approaching two years since I read and raved over Evan S. Connell’s novel Mrs Bridge? It feels like I just finished it. Back then, in the innocent days of April 2010, I asked “Classics imprints, where are you?” The answer was: here all along, because even then (quite independently of my plea) Penguin Modern Classics slowly and surely drew their plans to do the decent thing. Mrs Bridge, then, will be reissued in July 2012, with Mr Bridge to follow in 2013. I couldn’t wait until then to read the second volume, of course, and now that I’ve read it, have to get it out of my head and onto the screen right now.
With Mr Bridge, published in 1968, nine years after Mrs, Connell faces the task of making a book both familiar and new, and with all the internal consistencies that a companion volume requires. Frankly to comment on that, I would need to have read Mrs Bridge more recently (rather than just thinking I had). Anyway, Connell has given himself a minor get-out by the very character that Walter Bridge takes. He is a lawyer, a man who sees language clearly but whose vision of humanity is myopic. Words can be interpreted, nailed into place – that is his job – whereas people remain fuzzy and hard to pin down. He has no real idea how his own household operates, and is in awe at the wonders his wife works with it. “The idea of life without her caused him to move restlessly.” So, if his story doesn’t quite chime with Mrs Bridge, we can pretend it’s because he doesn’t notice what she does, says or thinks anyway. This difficulty in his vision is put comically in one of the earliest chapters, as Mr Bridge contemplates his posthumous bequests:
Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and children, not merely for the precision of the language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.
The danger here is that he could be presented as a fool, with no requirement for the reader to get close to him. And certainly, Connell gives Mr Bridge some distancing views, though ones perhaps not unknown in the southern states of the USA in the 1930s. When a photograph is published in the local newspaper of a lynching, his outward response is to ask his wife, “What was this fellow doing that he shouldn’t have been doing?” His unspoken reaction is more interesting: “The photograph evoked a sense of the South: he could nearly feel the oppressive heat and hear the hoots of laughter and the jokes and shouts and lewd suggestions as the lash went whistling through the air and exploded against the Negro’s skin, the cheers and the clapping, the barking dogs, and the guns popping wildly in the pine forest.”
Like its predecessor, Mr Bridge tells a life not as one story but as many: the short episodes are discrete – there are 141 scenes in 360 pages – although people and themes recur. This ‘highlights’ technique makes the book something like, to paraphrase Geoff Dyer on Jack Robinson, a novel with all the dull bits cut out. Except that that is not quite right: rather, to begin with Mr Bridge is like a novel with only the dull bits left in. Mr Bridge’s life, like his wife’s, is not always distinguished by incident, and some of the more beautifully boring passages read like precursors to the anti-humour of Scott Dikkers’ Jim’s Journal or Sylvia Smith’s Misadventures. In these scenes, Connell resists the temptation to make them interesting: as a result of which they become absolutely fascinating. One scene, ‘No Oil’, sets up potential conflict when Mr Bridge’s garage carries out more work on his car than he asked them to; but the risk is spiked when the owner agrees to cover the cost himself. “And that was how it ended.”
Featuring the most humdrum scenes at the beginning sets up the reader for understanding that this is the undercurrent of Mr Bridge’s life (and that he is not unusual in that). This makes some of the later, surprising, chapters stand taller still. Into particular focus comes Mr Bridge’s troubled relationship with eldest child Ruth, who is growing away from him and makes him feel all the poignancy of the unrequited love parents have for their children. It brings out certain responses. In the scene quoted below, much of the force comes from its completeness as a chapter in itself, with space before and after, a floating island of intense feeling. The reader careers off the end, like Wile E Coyote, almost as soon as the drama strikes.
Ruth asked to borrow two hundred and fifty dollars. She would not say why she wanted the money. He refused to consider giving it to her without first knowing why she wanted it. At last she said one of her girl friends was flying to Tijuana and needed company. He said he would not let her have the money. Then he inquired, jokingly, why her girl friend wished to go to Tijuana, and Ruth answered that her friend was going to have an abortion. Before he knew what he was about to do he jumped up from behind the desk and slapped her across the mouth; then he sat down again as though nothing had happened, and Ruth walked out of the study. He noticed with astonishment that the hand which had slapped her was dancing around on the desk as if it was attached to a string. He seized it with his other hand and bowed his head. He could not believe he had struck her. His fingers burned at the memory. When she was a baby he had held her in his arms while she was falling asleep. There were nights when nothing more than the knowledge of her existence had been enough to waken him so that he had gotten out of bed and gone to the crib to watch over her.
This is a lovely thing: the word ‘memory’ triggering a vertiginous drop as the reader follows Mr Bridge from the present to the past; Mr Bridge wondering what went wrong while the reader has similar thoughts from another direction. Most of all, it slices open and exposes the fact that, while delivering great certainty to his children, wife and friends, Mr Bridge in truth hardly knows his own feelings. When they come forward, they do so with a force that shocks him: here his relationship with his daughter Ruth is central, in several ways.
Throughout the story, Connell gives us no shortage of reasons to dislike Mr Bridge: his racism, anti-semitism, sexism and other -isms that are so last century that they don’t even have a name any more. He could be a Blimpish caricature, but in his personal relationships, as stifled as they are, Mr Bridge develops added dimensions. His stunted affection for his wife comprises equal parts protectiveness and pity for her naivety, as when she eats the paper in a fortune cookie, never having seen one before. He realises that “he himself was responsible. He had taken her from the home where she had been sheltered as a child and substituted himself for her father, so she knew nothing she had not been permitted to know.” Their limited lives are the product of a perfect storm of personality types and the times they live in. Late in his life, late in the book, Mr Bridge recognises that “there were many things he had not done because for one reason or another they seemed unsafe – too many, perhaps.”
With his caution and his wife’s innocence, their life together is defined by fear of the unknown. Connell, however, keeps the reader who is expecting a descent into downright drama on the edge of satiety. (Mrs Bridge, written earlier but ending later, covers that need nicely.) Nonetheless there is a feeling of melancholy as the book gets nearer to its end. This is partly the heavier weight of Mr Bridge’s vulnerabilities being allowed to show, and his recognition of the only end of age – no longer contemplating his will with satisfaction, but observing the increasing decrepitude of his contemporaries (“Ultimately they were all going to go”). Finally, however, the regret comes from the naturally ambivalent feeling of completion at the end of any book, particularly one as satisfying as this.
January 5, 2012
My ongoing issues with availability of time to read and review are so well-rehearsed here that I’ve begun to bore even myself. I mention them once again only to explain why I’ve decided to take a page from Trevor Berrett’s blog and review a short story. I’ve done this once or twice before, but only when the story was published as a standalone volume. There are compelling reasons to do this, I think, other than the necessity of time constraint. Many stories deserve consideration at full length and can serve as a window to an author’s work generally. The corollary is that it’s difficult anyway to review an author’s collected stories effectively. Is it possible even to read them effectively, when the tics of any author will start to seem pathological over (in this case) 650 pages?
All this is relevant because I read ‘People Like That Are The Only People Here’ precisely because of the opposing responses it’s received. When I mooted reading some Lorrie Moore on Twitter, one reliable reader singled out the story as a must-read. This reminded me that another reliable reader, Adam Mars-Jones in his critic’s garb, had highlighted it in his review of Moore’s Collected Stories as “the most mannered and posturing thing in the book.” (He makes it clear that this stands it against some pretty stout competition.) They might both be right. Another tweeter observed that ‘Peed Onk’ (let’s call it that from now on: short, and no mistaking it for anything else) is “as good a case for the prosecution as for the defence. It’s very ripe.”
It sure is. ‘Peed Onk’ – at 34 pages, one of Moore’s longest stories – is about a baby with cancer, or in fact it’s about his mother. It’s also full of jokes and wisecracks – both distinct from comedy. This is where Mars-Jones takes issue with Moore, not just in this story, but generally: her humour is “closer to a compulsion than a talent.” There is some truth in this. Any story about childhood cancer is going to promise hard going, and it’s a promise – or threat – that the reader largely wants to see fulfilled. Terrible things happening should be terrible to read. So when the predominant tone of the narrative is jaunty – the sentences stabbed with exclamation marks – it risks making the reader too comfortable. You could end up with something like Emma Donoghue’s Room, robbed of force by the narrative constraints the author has placed on her story. Here, however, I think Mars-Jones’s concerns are unjustified. The mother is thinking and speaking in this way, surely, as a coping mechanism for the worst horror that can strike a parent. Indeed, if it’s correct that the story reflects events in Moore’s own life, then the jokes, the tone, the story itself may be entirely real instances of the coping mechanism in operation.
This quality is there right from the title (on which generally I agree with Mars-Jones: “Moore never seems to have found a title arch enough to satisfy her, but surely this time she comes close”). Here, ‘Peed Onk’ is what everyone in the hospital calls the unit for Paediatric Oncology. A wise barrier to erect, from two of the worst words in the language to two of the cutesiest: ‘Peed Onk’ sounds like an exclamation from In the Night Garden. The parents here, and the children too, need all the cushioning they can get while they adjust to the new reality. “Everyone admires us for our courage,” says one father. “They have no idea what they’re talking about. Courage requires options.”
The charge of excess whimsy is addressed too by the fact that the tone of the mother’s thoughts is often closer to hysteria than to humour. And even within the jokes, there is darker truth: a parent’s fear of their child falling sick, yes, but also of not being a good enough parent in the first place, of not always putting first the child now at risk of being lost forever.
Perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished: too many baby-sitters too early on. (“Come to Mommy! Come to Mommy-baby-sitter!” she used to say. But it was a joke!) Her life, perhaps, bore too openly the marks and wigs of deepest drag. Her unmotherly thoughts had all been noted: the panicky hope that his nap would last longer than it did; her occasional desire to kiss him passionately on his mouth (to make out with her baby!); her ongoing complaints about the very vocabulary of motherhood, how it degraded the speaker (“Is this a poopie onesie? Yes, it’s a very poopie onesie!”).
This may be where the experience that the reader brings to the story is relevant. I have never knowingly opened a sentence with the words “As a parent”, but I did wonder if my own position – having two young children I could mentally put in the place of Baby in the story – added piquancy to the whole thing. The fact of feeling a more emotional draw from a story because of association with the characters may well be a failure of imagination, but subjectively, at the time, it feels like an expansion of it.
Moore certainly passes up no opportunities to invite the reader’s empathy and association. There is pathos aplenty, right from the moment at the beginning of the story when the mother discovers blood in the baby’s nappy, “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” She asks, “How can it be described? How can any of it be described?” but ineffability is not Moore’s way. And it is effective and efficient, this targeted aim at the heart of the reader. What parent, what human, cannot feel the twinge when the mother whispers into the baby’s ear, “If you go, we are going with you. We are nothing without you.”
Yet it is also this direct appeal which is Moore’s biggest weakness. After ‘Peed Onk’, I read two more stories as recommended to me: ‘Dance in America’ and ‘You’re Ugly, Too.’ These also are very good stories, thoroughly funny and unmistakably sad, and made it certain that I will read more. But like ‘Peed Onk’, they seem to have the author’s thumb on the scales, too obviously directing the reader. There’s evidence of control-freakery, a determination on Moore’s part to steer the reader’s understanding of her characters via pithy insights. In ‘You’re Ugly, Too,’ we’re told on the first page that the main character was “almost pretty, but her face showed the strain and ambition of always having been close but not quite.” This, to my tastes, is too neat: now that the reader has been told this, how can they make up their own mind? And when Moore adds that the character wore novelty earrings “no doubt for the drama her features lacked,” that no doubt makes it clear that the observation must be coming from the writer rather than the character herself. Author, step back, let go! Similarly, the anecdotes and just-so details around the characters come worryingly close to quirkiness.
Yet this is clearly something which others not only value but consider one of Moore’s finest attributes. Critics whose praise features on the cover of The Collected Stories say “Moore’s stories pack more wit and tragicomic power into a single paragraph than most novels manage over fifteen chapters,” and “Every line feels crafted, cared about, subjected to crash-testing, really meant.” To me, these threaten unwelcome claustrophobia. The signposts to the reader – laugh here, cry now – are made all the more glaring when you read three stories and all feature serious illness: childhood cancer, cystic fibrosis, mysterious growths. What easier shortcut to the reader’s sense of significance could there be? Still, Moore shows that there is pleasure to be had in all this pain: within these parameters, the stories are a delight to read. And here, also, is one area where Moore’s nemesis Mr Mars-Jones can’t crow: most of his fiction has been set around sickness too.