Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Aborted Books

This past week, I stopped reading two books.  Since identity is often determined as much by dislikes as by likes, it seems worthwhile to consider these aborted books.

You’ll remember that a couple weeks back I read Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge.  I thought I would complete the set and read Mr. Bridge, published 10 years later.  Like Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge is composed of short chapters with witty titles, and, like Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge is plotless as far as I could tell.  I read 170 pages of an edition with 367 pages total, 46% of the book.  This was enough to tell me that in its overall aim, Mr. Bridge seems very much like Mrs. Bridge, except for the difference that Mr. Bridge’s life is a little more public and exterior than Mrs. Bridge’s—after all, he’s the one who makes money and makes decisions.  Perhaps this explains the increased amount of dialogue in Mr. Bridge, which is not as strong a suit for Connell as his ability to narrate slightly odd yet wholly lifelike scenarios, the technique that dominates Mrs. Bridge.  Still, because he is more in the public arena and yet like his wife in many ways, Mr. Bridge comes across as bigoted when he takes those limitations into the public sphere rather than burying them in the private sphere, as Mrs. Bridge does.

In a 1982 review from The Iowa Review, Brooks Landon puts it this way: “We know Mrs. Bridge through her failures, Mr. Bridge through his successes, and we realize that both have imprisoned themselves in sadly limited views of the world.  Mr. Bridge’s opinions infuriate as much as Mrs. Bridge’s naivete amuses; the two books are almost completely different yet perfectly matched.”  Landon seems spot on, except for his statement that the books are almost completely different.  Different though the characters might be—and Mr. Bridge is haunted by his attraction to his eldest daughter, the type of dark scenario that wouldn’t occur to Mrs. Bridge—the world is the same and the effect is the same, and even the methods by which Connell achieves the effect is the same.  The biggest difference, as far as I could tell, was that where Connell masterfully created pathetic empathy in the reader for Mrs. Bridge despite her many failures, he made Mr. Bridge less sympathetic, which in turn took away the quality that kept me riveted to Mrs. Bridge.

Long story short, I stopped reading Mr. Bridge because the chord had already been struck (and struck and struck) in Mrs. Bridge and was being struck again in Mr. Bridge, only this time without the nuance of capturing our pity for the very character the book skewers.

While Mr. Bridge isn’t exactly a sequel—the action takes place at the same time as his spouse’s book—it is a perfect case in point for why I would never write a sequel to one of my books.  For me, the greatest pleasure of writing is having the opportunity to explore ideas in depth.  My energy for each project I take on, whether short story, novel, novella, or poem, comes from the excitement of thinking deeply on a subject so that nuances and meanings and observations come clear in a way they never would if I hadn’t taken time to think in a particular way, to play with the material, to work on it in my mind.  The brilliant critic Sven Birkerts talks about reading as the one place left in our society for deep contemplation: that sense of contemplation is exactly what I find in writing.  So why, then, would I ever care to write a sequel?  To return, as Connell did, to the same set of ideas and impressions? 

My second aborted book was The Passion of Mary-Margaret by Lisa Samson.  Here, I made it through only 53 pages of 313, or 17%, but it was obvious from the start that this book was not only straightforward in its truly prosaic prose, but that it was straightforward in its handling of Christian material.  (Clearly, I'm offering just one opinion, as this page will show; others seem to have liked it.)  Nothing pleases me more than a Flannery O’Connor or a Marilynne Robinson who manages to bring the complexities of Christian faith to the complexities of good literature, making for a more meaningful reading experience than the work could ever offer devoid of its theology.  Nothing pleases me less than being hit in the face with spiritual assurances I might have gathered as a child in Sunday school.  So when Jesus literally spoke to the main character in The Passion of Mary-Margaret and disappeared leaving only the smell of lilies behind him, I knew it was time to drop this book in the library return slot and hope not a whiff of it lingered. 

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