October 2014

Lee Matalone


Bridge by Robert Thomas

Made up of fifty-six two-to-five page exercises in associative thinking -- vibrant thought connecting vibrant thought -- Robert Thomas's first novel Bridge will delight the more experimentally inclined, analytical reader. Bridge is an engaging, meandering exploration of the mind of the novel's protagonist, Alice, as she struggles with thoughts of suicide; her affection for her married co-worker, David; and her antagonistic relationship with her supervisor, Fran.

While Bridge is physically set in San Francisco, the novel's primary setting is Alice's thoughts. As the reader progresses through the novel, patterns of thinking, motifs, emerge; tracing them is part of the fun of reading Thomas's first foray into fiction (he has previously published two books of poetry).

One of the novel's major threads is opera, which weaves itself into a number of Bridge's miniature chapters: Puccini's La Bohème, Wagner's Die Walküre, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. In English, the Italian word "opera" means work, or labor, an important translation to note in terms of understanding Alice and her struggle: in the final lines of the novel, Alice, referring to herself in the third person, proclaims "This broken, crazy bitch is going for broke. She's going to Angel Island on a raincoat. She's going to work." For Alice, opera is critical to living, to the work that is living, because life is not an easy day-to-day undertaking for our protagonist. For Alice, every day is work. She explains,

David knows I went to the opera every night for a week, but he doesn't know what that meant -- how it altered my chromosomes. It's not about liking the music. I'm not a vampire. I don't drink the blood. It's a transfusion. Every night the voices flowed into me. I heard voices in my veins. For me the opera hall is a blood bank, and I take it all in: red and white blood cells, platelets, plasma.

References to opera weave together with other threads. There are references to the literary arts; Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Henry James and Truman Capote make appearances in Alice's thought processes. Film and film stars also float through the novel: Titanic, Ken Burns documentaries, April in Paris, Meryl Streep, North by Northwest, Jimmy Stewart kissing Kim Novack, Annie Hall, Taxi Cab. Cultural miscellany form their own thread: Wendy's, Battleship, Constant Comment. For Alice, these threads serve to ground her in a reality outside of herself; they provide a stable frame of reference apart from her sleep-deprived, mentally and emotionally fragile state, when she is more than lightly contemplating suicide, when she has purchased a Smith & Wesson in order to actually carry through with it in a contrived murder suicide, taking her supervisor, Fran with her.

When Fran calls Alice into her office unexpectedly, Alice places the encounter within a context that she can understand:

For a moment I thought she was asking about an impossible pregnancy that somehow she had become aware of before I did. Then I realized she was asking about the word processing "department" -- i.e., David and me. Her tone was cordial, like Robert Duvall in The Godfather, but it seemed to suggest a horse's head might have been discovered in the LaserJet, blood gumming up the works.

Alice's acts of referencing as a grounding strategy help the reader feel Alice's sense of isolation and loneliness. For the reader, these references provide a cohesive framework to follow, as the novel is otherwise structured in a nontraditional, nonlinear fashion. Bridge is divided into three, unnamed parts that roughly abide by the following structure: the period before the planned murder-suicide, the days surrounding and day of the planned murder-suicide, which happens to be Good Friday (a fact that she doesn't realize until she sees an altar boy carrying a box of lilies), and the weekend after her plan is thwarted. Outside of these relatively amorphous boundaries, the reader does not have a concrete sense of when events are taking place; we are left with a general impression of a certain period in Alice's life.

Indeed, Bridge follows its own logic, one that parallels Alice's personal theories about how the world operates:

The concept of cause and effect is ridiculous. Breaking the link between cause and effect is what it means to be human. Cause: A man gives a woman a spray of pink carnations with serrated edges. Effect: The woman cuts her thumb with a bread knife.

In many ways, this is how Bridge functions. Thomas severs the logic of a linear narrative in which one event seemingly leads directly into another. To tell the story of Alice's psychological struggles, Thomas juxtaposes one moment of thought next to another, moments seemingly unrelated, much like the way our own thoughts and emotions sometimes don't consequentially follow some sensible chain of events:

The truth is that anything can add up to anything. A hunter can shoot a deer because he remembers how beautiful his mother looked on the porch holding the tools while his father installed storm windows. A woman can pour herself a glass of wine because the earth turns enough that the sun falls on the callas on the kitchen table. A woman can take a man's hand and put it on her breast because she despises him and the street he lives on and the way the moonlight pools in the fenders of the parked cars.

In Reality Hunger, David Shields famously lambasts the traditional novel form and its absolute futility in attempting to capture the stuff of life:

While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they're actually chaotic and opaque. There's no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances. There's no internal spectator of a Cartesian theater in our heads to applaud the march of consciousness across its stage.

Shields argues that the contemporary story, the novel, fails to capture the way that life really happens, which is nonlinear, chaotic, nonsensical: "Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason and I want to say, No, it doesn't." Further, he writes, or borrows, a statement explaining the exact failure of linear narratives (Shields's literary vision is fragmentary, suspicious of copyright and the anti-sharing ethos; recycling, he argues, is inherent to art):

Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though -- standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night -- flies at us in bright splinters.

Alice's personal narrative of struggle, of a search for meaning when the logic of cause and effect is more idealistic than realistic, is imitated by Bridge's narrative structure. Bridge, both thematically and structurally, attempts to do more than the traditional novel, to show us that in fact, the world is a-logical, that a good portion of the human experience is spent figuring out how to navigate the chaos in any way we can.

At times, language takes hold over the narrative, mussing up Alice's believability as a character. The first paragraph itself leans toward the overwrought, an exercise in pretty language and punning rather than a direct attempt at characterization:

David and I like to go our separate ways for lunch. I usually have a tuna-radish sandwich and eat at my desk. The radishes are my inspiration: I like how they clash with my lipstick, and they taste how I like to think my lipstick looks: incongruous.

Unfortunately, moments like these jolt the reader out of the narrative; we don't buy that Alice is a real person, with a real psychological struggle, who is capable of bringing a gun into the law office where she works and opening fire on a coworker before turning the gun on herself.

But perhaps the melodramatic language is functional, as key to the telling of Bridge as opera is to Alice's survival. Thomas writes,

Sometimes suicide is nothing more than a way of saying, "No, actually I was not being ironic. I meant it." Even then people think you're being operatic. Of course you are. You have to get the audience's attention, so busy in the upper balcony unwrapping their lemon drops. Sometimes you have to raise your eyebrows to a theatrical height and wear lilac eye shadow with black mascara, gold glitter on red gloss, just to get someone to listen.

Moments like this, where playful, beautiful language and characterization work in tandem, make you feel for Alice, sympathizing with her struggle to find meaning in something, whether that be opera or Angels in America or French fries, to find reasons to go to work.

Bridge by Robert Thomas
BOA Editions
ISBN: 978-1938160486
144 pages