Friday, April 20, 2018

Richard Russo, "Bridge of Sighs"

Most of the fiction I read is either fantastic, historical, or set in strange, far away places. But every once in a while, curious about what I might be missing. I try a "mainstream" novel set in contemporary America or Europe. Thus Bridge of Sighs (2007) by Richard Russo, which I grabbed off the "recommended" shelf at the library on a whim. Russo won the Pulitzer prize for an earlier book (Empire Falls) and this one garnered enough extravagant blurbs and mentions on ten best books of the year lists to make me think it represents the better sort of American middlebrow fiction.

Bridge of Sighs is built around the reminiscences of Louis Lynch, 60-year-old, lifelong resident of the upstate New York town of Thomaston. It focuses on his childhood and his high school years, with a bit about the earlier lives of his parents and the events of his sixtieth year. Besides his family the main characters are his best boyhood friend, who eventually becomes a well-known artist, and the girl who becomes his wife.

I found it pleasant to read, mostly, and I made it through all 650 pages. It has some good characters and good material on psychology and family dynamics. The town feels like a real place. It is smoothly written and has some lovely reflective passages, like this one:
The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.

Blame love.
But oh, the plot. The travesty, the ignominy, the horror of the plot. It makes one question the whole literary world of our time, that such a book could be praised, that anyone could consider it among the ten best of anything.

The main thing is the love triangle involving the narrator (a big doofus with a heart of gold), his friend the intensely-wired, multiply-divorced artist, and the narrator's conflicted wife. The sheer, utter obviousness of this, and the ham-handed way it was set up, made me cringe over and over. It was even worse than the equally obvious, ham-handed love triangle at the heart of the last mainstream novel I assayed, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Gag me. Aren't there any other plots?

And though the set-up is bad, the resolution is even worse: the exciting artist dies of a heart attack chasing after the train on which rides the woman he should have pursued in high school but foolishly left behind on his way to artistic fame. I kid you not. He actually drops dead, clutching at his heart, watching the Best Woman He Ever Knew disappear into the distance toward her happy home and doofus husband.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. Even more than the appalling love triangle, what bothered me was the way the story focuses in on the senior year of high school. This year, we see, is the fulcrum on which the rest of our lives depend. After that, nothing meaningful happens, just the unrolling of a script dictated by the choices of that Fateful Year. You leave or stay home, go to college or don't, pick a mate, and the rest is history. By comparison to that time of freedom and possibility, of action or potential action, adulthood is blah: no change, no secrets to reveal, no new worlds to explore.

I decided to write a review of this forgettable book to ask about that basic premise: that high school is the most vibrant part of life, and that what happens then determines all else. Does anybody out there think that is normal, or even common? Sure, who you marry matters, but with age at first marriage creeping up towards 30 it no longer has much to do with what happens when you're 17, if it ever did. Whether you go to college matters, but plenty of people do that years after high school, even decades. Is the world full of people who spend their time remembering high school and regretting the things they did or didn't do, unable to feel the same excitement about the events of their adult years?

It all seems so small to me, so blinkered. Russo focuses so intently on the ties between these dozen or so people in the same small town that he leaves out vast tracts of what people do with their lives and their minds. The narrator's parents were conventional Catholics, but neither they nor anybody else seems to have much faith or to see what happens in terms of God's plan. Nobody cares about science or the Moon landings. Vietnam is just a place local boys went, to die or come back. There is a little about racism, and one troubled gay kid, but otherwise no politics. The sixties never really happen. There is very little art, even though two of the characters are artists, and not even much music. Nobody thinks about history or dreams about the far future. We watch this old factory town fade as the factories shut down, but we see nothing of the new economy, not even a single cell phone.

Stripped of religion, art, science, and politics, life in this little town reduces to a high school contest over who is cool and who dates whom. No wonder adults never change course, but only follow the one laid out in adolescence; in this world there is nothing new, only old friendships, old loves, and old mistakes.

It is utterly foreign to life as I have experienced it. Do all the reviewers who praised it to the skies feel like Russo about high school and adulthood? Or is something else going on that I have missed?


G. Verloren said...

"I decided to write a review of this forgettable book to ask about that basic premise: that high school is the most vibrant part of life, and that what happens then determines all else. Does anybody out there think that is normal, or even common?"

"It is utterly foreign to life as I have experienced it. Do all the reviewers who praised it to the skies feel like Russo about high school and adulthood? Or is something else going on that I have missed?"

I'm in the same boat as you on this - it seems like an utterly foreign, and even absurd notion. And yet, I've been aware of the trope for a long time, and been aware that it has a broad acceptance as truth among some portions of society.

I think for a staggering number of people, particularly members of the older generations, they actually do view their high school years as the best time of their life. It seems that they feel like once you graduate from senior year, it's all just a long slow march to death, in which you just carry on and do your societal duties, and slowly fade into oblivion, with only your memories of past glory for comfort or joy.

And the thing is, given the circumstances of many Americans, who aren't intellectuals and who aren't terribly well educated, I'm not entirely sure they're wrong.

I think think that most Americans do the bulk of their personal development before leaving high school, because that's the last time they have enough free time to spend resources on bettering themselves, instead of on meeting their obligations. Once they graduate, they have to find a menial job, put their nose to the grindstone, and spend all their time either working or recovering from the exhaustion of working.

Most people wake up, go to work, come home, feed themselves, sit in front of the television for a bit, have a few beers or smoke a few cigarettes, then go to bed and do it all over again. They have little to no free time until the weekend, and they spend most of that blowing off steam and destressing in preparation for the next week. Sometimes they can devote some of it to a particular project they care about, but typically they can only afford to have one such pursuit at a time, and have to work on it long-term.

That doesn't leave much time or energy for pursuing deeper fulfillment or personal growth. They have more pressing concerns dealing with their job, their spouse, their pets, their kids, their extended family, their small circle of friends, potential automobile or home improvement projects, et cetera. If you're a working Joe with a miminal education and a provincial worldview, your prospects for changing the course of your life once you leave high school are typically not great. (Or at least, they don't appear that way - the reality may be different, but that doesn't matter if a person can't see said reality.)

And so you get millions of people whiling away their lives unhappy and discontent, and looking back wistfully at a time which they believe (wrongly or not) was the last time their life's course was not yet decided and their fate not yet sealed.

JustPeachy said...

I'm baffled by the phenomenon of high-school nostalgia, but apparently a lot of people peak in high school, and those are the folks who get nostalgic for it. It is, according to an article I recently read, a huge catalyst for adultery: people dislike the grind of their everyday adult working lives, don't really like the people they've become after having kids, and wanna go back to being the (irresponsible, pot-smoking, promiscuous, selfish, carefree, etc.) person they were in high school.

Perks of being a late bloomer, I guess: my high school years were hell, and I don't ever want to relive them. It's only gotten better since.

Shadow said...

Nothing transformational happened to me until after high school.