Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bridge Of Sighs - Richard Russo - Portrait of an (ordinary?) life

What constitutes an ordinary life and what a special one, how does one make the distinction? Lets say we pick out a random person among the teeming populace that we get to see every day and get to know his story, would we like it?  I have always felt this while travelling or even when I am just looking out of my window, especially at elder people. I feel that each one of them would have story unique to them to tell. Yes, most of our lives would not even find a footnote in history, but each one of us would have lived a life that is important to someone else, all of us would have had our share of joys and sorrows that may have been relevant to some people, maybe it still is. Ok, so a broad idea of the details of any life would be interesting, but would we be willing to know the finer, minute details of a normal everyday life. That's what Richard Russo has tried in 'Bridge Of Sighs' where he tells about 'Louis Charles Lych' (call Lucy because of the initial of his middle name), covering majorly the period between the ages 10 to 18 of Lou's life. This is also the story of his parents, Sarah his wife, Bobby his friend, about the 3 families struggling to survive in a small town. As usual, Russo who is the master in depicting small-town life gives us a peek into the working of one such such town.
As the novel begins Lou (or Lucy) aged sixty has been married for 40 years to Sarah and has led a seemingly harmless, well satisified life with no unsatisifed desires. His friend Bobby had left their town about 40 years ago and has never returned. Lou and Sarah are planning to make a trip to Venice and also meet Bobby who is now a famous painter and residing in Venice. Lou, at this stage of life has also taken up the task of writing a memoir. As the novel unfolds the narrative is in various strands, one is the memoir that Lou is writing which gives us details on his childhood, friendship with Bobby and Sarah, his relationship with his parents, his father whom he literally worships and his mother whom he likes but a bit intimimidated by her. Big Lou, Lucy
father is an interesting character, his unwavering belief and devotion to his son, his (almost) adamant view that there is nothing wrong with Lucy (who suffers from spells during which he is mentally absent) are things that are portrayed without any cloying. The other strand is the present. The third strand(s) are about  things from Sarah's and Bobby's view point which is narrated by the author(?). From this tangled web of narratives a more complex picture emerges about each character. Lou, who comes across as a doofus may actually be hiding something, he may have been an emotionally needy person, who willfully supresses any information that he feels may harm the view he has formed of the world in general. In several ways Lou seems to be the splitting image of his father, not just in appearance, but in his behaviour too. Sarah and Lou's mother, both of whom come across initially as the most stable among the lot actually have their own inner conflicts. Infact Lou and Sarah could be seen as doppelgangers of Lou's parents as far as their characters are concerned. The great man Marquez said in 'Living To Tell The Tale', 'Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers in order to recount it'. So it is with the memoir written by Lou which is the main part of the novel. When compared to the other narrative strands, it shows some subtle discrepancies that may be more than just the normal clouding of memory that happens when we look at things that happened long ago. It could be an almost consious attempt by the outwardly happy, fully satisfied Lou to subvert and change what actually happened. Russo does this subtly so that the reader could actually miss the differences if he is paying enough attention. In any case the format of the memoir is a very good trope to use the concept of unreliable narrator and confusing the reader. The story starting from Lou stretches across multiple characters. It's like the characters are like molecules roaming around, colliding at some point, feeling the consequences, moving away, colliding again with other molecules, resulting in the energy that drives their entire lives. Consequently what each person thinks about the other depends on wholly his interaction with the other person and based on that he forms his opinions.  The novel is also about the 3 families trying to survive, in the face of the onslaught of modern business taking over the small town shops(Lucy) , surviving the split ups (Sarah's mother has left her father, who has been writing a 1000 page plus novel which he feels will be a masterpiece and bring his wife back to him), surviving physical abuse (Bobby's father abuses his mother, who tries running away several times and is caught always). Bobby's relationship with his father is the counterpoint of Lucy's with his father. Bobby's father comes across as a total prick initally, but later even Bobby seems to thaw a bit towards him. However, deep rooted anger and resentment from childhood cannot be fully erased isn't it. The pent up feeling get a release at a point and results in the events that lead to Bobby leaving their town for good.

The novel does not speak to us of anything new, but reiterates the fact that ultimately, at some level all of us are alone. All of us have a place deep down within us, an island which no one else knows about and which no one can access. It is quite possible that even the concerned person does not know about it and even if so, he unconsiously tries to suppress it's existence. Lucy has some fears of his own, Sarah the most stable of them has some things which she has kept to herself (which Lucy has an inkling of, but Sarah is not aware of this). Even Bobby who seems to have made it, in terms of both money and fame has some thing gnawing at him deep down.
The book does have some issues which may come in the way of reading it. For one it's length, at around 700 pages it could have been about 100 pages shorter. And much like any ordinary life it is trying to potray, the book is exciting at times, boring at other, at some point you feel an ennui slogging through it, you want to even give up the book at times, but as in life if one manages to stumble through to the end, I suspect you would feel a sense of fulfillment. I did not particularly enjoy reading the book (like I did Russo's other works), at times I just wished it would end. Ultimately it made me introspect a bit, which I think is not a bad thing at all and not a big price to pay for your patience with this book. Having said this, if you are a new reader to Russo, I would suggest that you try his earlier works like 'Empire Falls' ( or 'Straight Man'. If you have read some of his works earlier, I would recommend this novel, just be patient with it (as we have to with life itself).

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