My graduate writing professors Alan Cheuse and Susan Shreve first made me aware of Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. In fact, they recommended it so highly, I bought a copy that loitered on my bookshelf from 2008 until two weeks ago when I finally decided it was time.
The impetus to pick it up came from a panel I attended at the AWP conference in February. The panel featured several writers—among them Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, who I wanted to see again after seeing her at the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony. (If you follow that PEN/Faulkner link, does the person at the top of the page look familiar?) These writers had revisited the 1960 National Book Award with the intent of examining what makes fiction last and what biases are at play in awarding large literary prizes. The panel overwhelmingly loved and championed Mrs. Bridge (as well as Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King).
With all the good things I had heard about Mrs. Bridge, I began to read, and to read quite happily. The book consists of 117 short chapters, and each one is pitch-perfect to the privileged Kansas City life of the 1930s and 40s it portrays. Any reader would admire Connell’s ability to pick details of everyday life that are yet slightly strange or absurd—a strangeness that lends a sense of truth to them. I also fell in love with the titles of each chapter, which often give a clever or wry nod to the content of the chapter itself. They are the pared-down descendant of Thackeray, who makes his active commentary in Vanity Fair as he watches his own characters like figures on a stage. I’m almost tempted to argue that in a plotless book like Mrs. Bridge, the chapter titles form the closest thing to a subplot.
In any case, I was gliding along in Mrs. Bridge’s emotionally-stunted world of suburban America when I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was about to finish reading it. She immediately reacted very negatively, saying she had read the book in graduate school and hated it.
She might as well have brought a pin to the bubble of praise that had enabled me to float so admiringly through Mrs. Bridge: I suddenly realized I couldn’t tell if I “liked” the book or not.
Not content to let others form opinions for me, I knew I had to settle this question immediately. After much thinking, I have arrived at a three-fold answer:
- The question of “liking” does not apply to this book. There is no plot, and that’s part of the point. This isn’t a book that will make you feel good, but it is a book that will help you examine life. Do we “like” doing that? Hard to say.
- As a writer, I “like” the book in the sense that I admire how perfectly Connell pulls it off. He at once creates a sense of pathetic empathy in us for Mrs. Bridge, even while showing us how she chooses “paths of spiritual convenience” (to borrow a phrase from Steve Almond’s wise essay that appeared in Ninth Letter, where the project of revisiting the 1960 Natl Book Award originated in a series of essays).
- But as a reader, I can’t say that I “like” the book. And this is because it is devoid of beauty. Yes, to some degree, that’s the point the book is trying to make about privileged life in America. And yet, I can’t help thinking of other “plotless” books that achieve similar senses of meaninglessness and the passage of time that are still beautiful: namely, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. At the prose level alone, Woolf’s books are more beautiful than Connell’s. But it’s ultimately the structure that makes Woolf more aesthetically pleasing than Connell. Both Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse achieve a sense of heightening. It wouldn’t be fair to use the word “climax”—there is nothing so traditional at work in Woolf. But Connell’s failing, as far as the reader’s aesthetic enjoyment goes, is in the way Mrs. Bridge strikes a particular impression from page one that remains the exact same impression over and over again, even to the very last chapter. There is no sense of heightening, no sense of intensifying, and if you want to argue that this makes Connell’s book the more life-like, perhaps you have a point. But for my money, examining life requires something other than 100% verisimilitude. We yearn to find meaning and beauty, and if fiction lacks these qualities, I see no point in reading or in writing.
Am I being too harsh on poor Mrs. Bridge? Perhaps. But here we are back at Connell’s achievement, that even as I want to say I don’t like the book, I still have this overwhelming pathetic empathy for it.
One of the most interesting points the AWP panel made, and indeed, Steve Almond specifically makes in his essay, is that the true literary canon is not what appears on syllabi in college and graduate lit courses. It is instead the books that get passed on from writer to writer over the generations. Mrs. Bridge is exactly that type of book—my own case in point.
So let’s pose a more appropriate question than whether one likes the book or not. Let’s ask instead: Is this book worth reading?
With a host of writers present and past, I join the resounding “yes.”