Pointillism: A Review Of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Mr.
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/06
Immediately after reading the two Tropics novels of Henry Miller I turned to read the paired Bridge novels of Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. I was suspicious of their value for several reasons. First, after having read Miller one would think that all good literature was dead. The idea that a pair of novels on similar topics could be great, much less merely good or excellent, seemed permanently wiped from memory. Also, given that the books were my mother’s lent me pause. She reads trashy mystery novels, mostly. The third bit of doubt came from recently reading Connell’s Collected Stories. I gave the book a mild recommendation, but noted that Connell seemed far better with the shorter stories than the longer ones. His attention span seemed to diminish as he plowed through each tale. Thus, the idea of his writing a novel- which is a sustained, longer narrative than short stories, worried me. Luckily, Connell devised a way to minimize his withering narrative power. Both of these novels are not conventionally written. Instead, both use very short chapters- sometimes a chapter as a single paragraph- to limn the two title characters- a Kansas City suburban couple raising children in the first half of the 20th Century. Mrs. Bridge, the lead of the first book, written in 1959, is named India, and she falls in love with Walter, her husband, and they have two daughters, Ruth and Carolyn, and a son, Douglas. Walter is a lawyer and the second book, Mr. Bridge, is from his point of view, and was written in 1969. This decade difference shows. Mr. Bridge is the longer, more complex work, and while it covers many of the same incidents as Mrs. Bridge there are divergences. For instance, Mrs. Bridge focuses more heavily on the family life, and in it we witness the death of Mr. Bridge, and the ascension of Douglas to family head, just as the Second World War starts. Mr. Bridge focuses on his work, politics, and a wider range of social topics. The first book checks in at 117 chapters and 246 pages, while the second is a heftier 141 chapters and 367 pages.
That said, both are great books. Period. If you want character
development, poetic moments, insight, a portrait of a certain time and place,
these two books cannot be beat. The Bridges are petty, refined, bigoted, caring,
aloof, devoted, rich, yet simple people. In a sense it is almost impossible to
review one without the other. Significantly, both books start off with the
wooing and marriage of both. It is as if the books’ titles signify not only
who are the main characters, but what they are. Both characters define
themselves by their spouse, and, de facto, all we know, or need to know, about
them revolves around their married personae. The only thing more important to
the couple than each other seems to be what others think of them. In Mrs.
Bridge it is phrased this way: ‘She brought up her children very much
as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of
it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions,
and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others.’
Accordingly, these are not standard novels. There are no great, overreaching arcs. They are more like ‘blackout sketches’. Yet, each sketch is sort of like a minor point in the characters’ lives, and each point paints a mere portion of the canvas. In this way I am reminded of the Pointillist style of painting. In both books we get essentially the same portraits of the two main characters, albeit slightly parallaxed. Mrs. Bridge is a feeler and Mr. Bridge a thinker. She realizes, at some level, the emptiness of their existence. He does not, at least not as deeply. The suicide of a friend of Mrs. Bridge’s resonates far more deeply in her novel, where the later suicide, Grace Barron, asks her, ‘Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales--the ones who were all hollowed out in back?’ She seems to be what India Bridge wants to be, but lacks the fortitude to try to be. She actually questions her life and existence: ‘India, I've never been anywhere or done anything or seen anything. I don't know how other people live, or think, even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things?’ Mrs. Bridge never takes that leap, and this is what leaves Grace Barron alone enough in ennui to kill herself. The empty are never quite as lonely. And, in a sense, her husband is one of T.S. Eliot’s infamous Hollow Men, with stuffed shirts, etc. Yet, his wife may be even in worse shape- a total cipher, a walking collection of manners and mannerisms in deference to her husband, in fear of gossip, and in dotage to her children. Not that the Bridge children seemed any the better- their selfishness and proto-Bohemianism has its own ills, and I suspect if books about the three children were ever written Connell would have been just as merciless on them as he was on the titular characters of these books, which represented his parents’ generation of country club Republicanism.
Yet, there are scenes when he is pitiless on his elders. Mrs. Bridge
momentarily dares to vote against her husband’s wishes, yet she cannot be
party to actions she feels will destroy her world of privilege. Later, in Mrs.
Bridge, her husband refuses to move as a tornado approaches. It does miss
them, but his stupidity and stubbornness are on full display. In his own book,
Walter Bridge is even accosted by a would-be robber, who demands his money. he
is so condescending that he cannot even conceive of the threat as real, and
walks right by the criminal, who is shocked by the atypical reaction. Yet, while
his aloofness takes its toll, it is nothing compared to her smothering, which
wedges away each of her three children, one by one. The oldest, Ruth, escapes to
New York City’s Greenwich Village, whose pretensions are far more deftly and
realistically sketched in her scenes with her father in Mr. Bridge than
anything in Henry Miller’s swill-laced pseudo-epics. Carolyn eventually
marries a man she has little in common with, whose claimed scene of braggadocio
in winning her father’s approval, in Mrs. Bridge, turns out to be
really nothing of the sort in Mr. Bridge. Yet, that scene, as written, in
his book, is one of the great triumphs of minimalism, for the reason Mr. Bridge
assents to his daughter’s suitor, is not because they have bonded, but because
he knows the shame that Mr. Bridge carries- that he was once poor, as well. Look
at how well this is sketched, at the end of chapter 135, and the way implication
is used, even though we have read next to nothing of the two elder Bridges’
pasts, before their marriage, in either book: ‘‘You have three seconds to
‘One, two, three. Bull!’ the boy said, lifting three
fingers, ‘Cork told me your folks lived in Sugar Creek.’
It was after dark when they left the office. Gil Davis said he ought to be catching the bus to Lawrence, but Mr. Bridge invited him to spend the night at the house. There was room enough, and it was time he met Mrs. Bridge.’
Again, no mention of where or what Sugar Creek is is necessary, just by its placement we know it’s a pejorative to all Mr. Bridge is, and therefore must mean poverty, and his childhood. Brilliant, and a technique so underused today. She is as doomed as her mother. And Douglas, despite moments of rebellion, seems slated to follow in his father’s dreary footsteps. There are countless details that perfectly sketch these damned folk, and sketches they are. The actions flow naturally out of the characters and vice versa. If a more perfectly realized realistic work of published fiction exists than these two books I would like to read them. This book trashes the need for plot, plot, plot. So much modern fiction is like tenth-rate soap opera. The Bridge novels take archetypal soap opera characters (potential caricatures), and makes them real.
And, while the episodes are not always strictly chronological, they do trend in a forward direction. There is the outer narrative of larger American life of the era, and the dueling dramas of the two protagonists. Mr. Bridge, for example, is shown as a man with a desire for control over all aspects of his life, even scenes where he firsts lusts for other women, then, glances at his nubile naked daughter Carolyn in her bedroom, and cannot shake the image of her body: ‘He reminded himself that she was his daughter, but the luminous image returned like the memory of a dream.’ Connell really strikes the perfect balance between the utter religious denial of such thoughts and the voyeuristic pornography that lesser writers would have wallowed in. By cutting off any further mention of the moment Connell allows it to have greater visceral impact in the reader’s mind than by writing pages of psychobabble about its effect. We not only read that Mr. Bridge is in denial of his carnal feelings, we feel it; a perfect artistic recapitulation of the character’s emotion. Not only does this work well from the narrative perspective, but it serves the character as well, who very early in the book declaims of himself, ‘So the years passed, they had three children and accustomed themselves to a life together, and eventually Mr. Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.’ Even his carnal thoughts of his daughter cannot truly move him, only embarrass him. Yet, this is a man who feels not a shred of embarrassment in giving out Christmas presents of stock certificates to the Kansas City Power & Light utility. But, even better, Connell has Mr. Bridge so nailed down, that he has him request the right to manage them for his family.
Yet, Connell does not descend into caricature. Mr. Bridge thinks very ill
of both blacks and Jews, as does his wife (to a lesser degree), yet is shown
doing acts of kindness and charity for individual blacks and Jews. Then, he
turns around and questions the motives of a lynching victim, and that of the
first black girl who wants to pledge at Carolyn’s sorority, or reacts queasily
to the very presence of a Jewish investor, and wonders if Hitler was all bad,
and not in the purest philosophic sense. Similarly, in her book, Mrs. Bridge has
many moments of good and bad personal traits exposed: She is curiously fond of a
young black girl who is friends of the children, she is utterly clueless as to
the world of male bullying, she is scandalized at the thought of a dramatic
presentation of Tobacco Road coming to town, and she floats through
Europe until the Nazis invade Poland. Perhaps her defining moment comes when she
discovers Douglas is looking at a dirty magazine, by going through his clothes
while getting the laundry ready. He discovers her snooping: ‘He had
followed her across the room and was now standing on the opposite side of the
desk with his fists clenched behind his back. Seeing him so tense she thought
that if she could only manage to rumple his hair as she used to do when he was a
small boy everything would be all right. Calmly, and a little slyly, she began
easing toward him.
Seeing that she was after him he also moved to keep the desk between them.’
Simply put, perfectly realized moments like this are no longer being published in contemporary fiction. Neither is the clarity. Poetry in fiction is not attained by over-the-top description nor baroque sentences straining toward Victoriana, but by the juxtaposition of the singularly beautiful, even if alone mundane, with another singular beauty. Yet, these moments, these points, alone give no insight, but arrayed in their respective clusters, then played off of each other in both books, they form two brilliant portraits, whose ends are excellent. Her book ends with mundane torture and his with continued delusion- fitting purgatories for both. Ah!, to recall more than just the art in a piece of art is always a great pleasure, and after getting neither the more nor the artwork in Henry Miller, thankfully Evan S. Connell restores faith in the way things should be in good art. In Miller, inherently exciting things are made to wallow in the worst sort of stupor and dullness, whereas Connell takes innately dull material, and weaves intimately exciting portraits by what he focuses on, and how. His poetry is bad, his short fiction wildly erratic, but these two books are aptly deserving of the appellation great. Damn, it feels good to write that!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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