February 4, 2008

Book review: "Bridge of Sighs," by Richard Russo

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo
Borzoi/Alfred A Knopf / ISBN: 978-0-375-41495-4

As regular readers know, artistic criticism is something fairly new to me (or at least regular artistic criticism is), with the entire thing being as much of a learning process for me as it often is for you; and of all the new things I am learning about the subject these days, one of the most surprising is of just how strongly our opinion of a project is influenced by which station in life we ourselves are at when coming across it. For example, as someone who tries to heavily cover the field of "indie lit" or "underground lit" or whatever you want to call it, I am of course constantly coming across novels designed to appeal primarily to those in their twenties, full of gimmicks and pop-culture references and other signs of its young demographics; and every time I come across one of these books, I always think about how much more it would've appealed to me at the age of 23 then it currently does at 38, and how what I write about it is heavily influenced by that. What I'm learning, in fact, is that the best critics must learn how to balance this subject when it comes to their finished essays -- that the most effective reviews are the ones that can take all kinds of different audience attitudes in mind while still acknowledging the biases of that specific reviewer, without apologizing for either aspect but rather trying to synthesize the two as much as possible.

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

A very good example of what I'm talking about, in fact, can be seen in today's novel under review, former Pulitzer winner Richard Russo's latest hefty saga about small-town life, Bridge of Sighs; because let's make it clear right off the bat, that this is a slow-moving academic-friendly novel about a bunch of old people in a rural east-coast environment, who spend most of their time sitting around and thinking about old-person stuff, a novel that if I had come across in my early twenties would've been highly tempted to scoff at and roll my eyes. Now that I'm in the lower rungs of middle-age, however, I found myself a lot more intrigued; I ended up liking the book quite a bit, to tell you the truth, although acknowledge that it has some serious flaws when it comes to the plotting of the overall storyline (but more on that in a bit). And what's even more, I can tell that I'm not even the main target audience to begin with -- that in actuality, this novel is primarily designed to appeal to people in their fifties and sixties, those just entering the winter of their lives for the first time, naturally obsessed with looking over the whole of their adulthoods, ruminating on where things went right and where they went wrong. And so that leads to an intriguing question -- that as a guy just now entering his forties, with a huge section of readership in their twenties and thirties, what exactly should I say about a book like this? Do I recommend it but with an asterisk? Do I suggest skipping it but with a caveat? Sheesh, who knew that being an artistic critic was such a hard job?!

I guess, then, let's start with this, that Russo is in fact precisely known for gentle slow-moving ruminations on small-town life; that's what his Pulitzer-winning novel was about as well, after all, 2001's Empire Falls, as well as a number of his other five novels and his one story collection. And indeed, this is a big reason behind why he won the Pulitzer in the first place; because those in charge of such awards as the Pulitzer, i.e. fussy old-fashioned white guys with careers in academia, tend to favor such delicate novels, tend to prefer complex character studies over fast-moving storylines, precisely because so many more astute observations about the human condition can be made through character than plot. Bridge of Sighs is certainly that way, for example, and in fact there are a whole series of subjects that one could argue that the book is "about" -- small-town life versus the big city, the pursuit of personal dreams versus the comfort of family, the role of different people in our society based on the biases and stereotypes of that particular age.

I prefer, however, to see it primarily as a look at the American Dream, or at least the one that's been promised since the end of World War II; you know, the one that's been baked into our systems so thoroughly that we rarely even question it anymore, the idea of each American generation being slightly better off than the one before, the idea of each American generation becoming just a little more literate and rich and sophisticated and world-dominant. This has been the promise of America, after all, since literally the end of the Great Depression in the early 1940s -- that it is the ultimate eden for self-actualization, that it is a fabled capitalist haven where anyone is allowed to get ahead, as long as they're willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and put in the hard work necessary. This seems to be almost a religious mantra, in fact, to the book's main character, upstate New York convenience-store owner Lou "Lucy" Lynch, a native of the rural Thomaston who's just now entering his sixties. Big, simple, optimistic, even at the turn of the millennium he still fundamentally believes the same thing his lumbering, optimistic dad taught him; that the American Dream of his mid-century youth is a very real thing, as concrete and guaranteed as any contract you might sign, with a natural free-market cause and effect to each and every event that happens in a life.

In fact, I never thought I'd say this, but Bridge of Sighs works remarkably well as a historical look at a period I thought too soon to be looked at historically -- of the years between Eisenhower and now, that is, showing in a complex and subtle way just what most Americans yearned for not only in the height of the Modernist Age, but how the hardships of the generation before shaped them, as well as how the postmodernist age afterwards profoundly failed them. And the reason I never thought I'd say this is because I'm part of this particular history cycle as well, so of course for a long time has not seemed like something old enough to be looked at historically in the first place -- I "came of age," after all, during the Reagan '80s, while my dad did so during the Kennedy '60s, while my grandfather did so during the Roosevelt '30s and '40s. Like so many others, I simply grew up with the "American Dream" being an unquestioned part of my life, this entire concept that no one does worse than their parents or grandparents did, that of course you and everyone you know are going to go to college, that there is no such thing as moving backwards in the good ol' U S of A.

In fact, this was much more of a literal contract during my parents' youth, a situation that Russo examines in depth in Bridge of Sighs; this idea that if you simply put your nose to the grindstone, simply devote the next twenty or thirty years of your life to doing something you don't necessarily enjoy, but that keeps your spouse and children safe and comfortable, you will ultimately be rewarded with a old-age of splendor and creativity, a virtual guarantee that everything will work out in the end and that your family will have indeed officially worked their way up yet one more step of the Great American Ladder of Success. Ultimately this is the attitude that drives both Lucy and his father, even as the circumstances of progress regularly implode the stable niceties of life that both take for granted -- from Lucy's dad's original job as a milkman all the way to the collapse of Thomaston's original 1950s class structure (poor on the west side of town, middle-class on the east, upper-class in the northeast corner on the hill, with Division Street running between them all).

If you look at Bridge of Sighs like this, it suddenly becomes fascinating; a grand metaphorical tale about Baby Boomer promises from a more enlightened age, rapidly collapsing in the harsh light of a contemporary America, a poorer and more backwards and less educated country than at the time the promises were originally made. An entire generation of workers are about to retire, the ones who created the fabled golden age of postwar America in the first place; they are suddenly asking in the millions, just as Lucy does in the book, where the old age of splendor and creativity is that Kennedy promised them all, back when they signed up for their thirty years of day-job drudgery in the first place. Like I said, this is certainly not the only subject that Russo tackles over the course of the book, and in fact some might argue that I'm making up an analysis out of thin air that's not really there; but of all the interesting topics that the author takes on, this I think is not only the most important but the main one holding the rest of all the subplots together.

And make no mistake, there are a hella lot of subplots going on in Bridge of Sighs, which gets me back to what I mentioned before; that there are serious problems with the plotting and pacing of the actual storyline being used here, problems that come with a lot of so-called "academic" literature but is especially egregious in this case. Because the fact of the matter is that, in their zeal to so deeply dive into the characters populating their stories, a lot of academic writers will forget about the actual plotline being used to propel the story itself, letting it meander and lazily drift to and fro, never really bringing things to a climax or conclusion like we in Western civilization so prefer our full-length artistic projects. Bridge of Sighs is unfortunately full of such languid diversions, with Russo suddenly devoting 40 or 50 pages to following the minor activities of a character's barely-mentioned relative, just to never again return to that character even once after that 50-page chunk is over. "But isn't that how real life is?" you might be tempted to ask. "Don't we actually follow threads in our lives that eventually lead to dead-ends, or concentrate on people just to eventually forget them?" Yes, which is my point; that literature and real life are two very different things, with elements that work in one case but fail in the other.

As mentioned, this is a problem that a lot of academic writers have (at least in my opinion), of getting caught up too much in the small, realistic moments of life and character development, and forgetting that the whole goal of being an author is to write engaging, attention-grabbing stories; it's why so much of the general population rolls their eyes at the notion of academic literature, and why winning a Pulitzer has the kind of surprisingly sketchy reputation it does among a certain crowd in the arts (the same crowd, for example, coming by CCLaP on a regular basis). So when it comes to all that, then, I guess I would say this -- that Bridge of Sighs is ultimately a good book, ultimately a rewarding one, but that you need to be a patient reader who enjoys the subtleties of fine characterization, as well as an examination of history through purposely bland small-town characters. In general, you can say that the older and more well-read a person is, the more likely they are to possess all the qualities mentioned above, which is how I encourage all of you to look at this book as well; this is not to say, however, that all young people are destined to hate it, or that all older people are destined to love it. That's about as fair as I think I can be to both the fans and critics of this book, something as a reviewer that I'm trying to get better and better at each time I sit down and write an essay. I hope that you'll take the same mindset when approaching the book yourself.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.1
Characters: 9.5
Style: 8.0
Overall: 8.2, or 9.2 for fans of academic literature

P.S. Oh, and a final note that I forgot to mention in the original review: Yes, watching an older middle-class white author affect the slang and accent of poor black people (as Russo does way too much throughout this book) is exactly as embarrassing as it sounds, the literary equivalent of watching your uncle get drunk at a wedding reception and suddenly decide that he knows how to rap. Please, older middle-class white males of the world, stop affecting the slang and accent of younger, poorer black people. You're embarrassing us all.

Read even more about Bridge of Sighs: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:50 PM, February 4, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |