The Mr Bennett of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell’s ‘Mr Bridge’, pt 1

(There’s so much to say about Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge that I’m going to break this post up into two parts.)

Last month I wrote about Connell’s 1959 novel Mrs Bridge (link here), which relates in 117 short chapters the quietly despondent, unreflecting but unfulfilled life of its bourgeoise protagonist, who I likened to Mme Bovary. Her husband is barely present. Now I turn my attention to Mr Bridge, published a decade later, in which her husband fills every chapter. In a novel that’s at times redolent of bleak existential despair, it’s also shot through with wit and humour.

Walter Bridge is a workaholic, a successful Kansas City lawyer. In her introduction to the 2012 PMC edition Lionel Shriver aptly describes him as a ‘stiff, upright, undemonstrative family man’ who is ‘staid’ and ‘outwardly wholesome’. Beneath this veneer of soap opera stereotypical American fatherhood – the respectable, wise and inspirational paterfamilias – is a complex, layered character as ‘insidiously bleak’ and ultimately lonely as his desperate housewife spouse. He reminds Shriver of her grandfather; I’m reminded of my father, a man of similarly deluded rectitude. And of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice: a wry patriarch with a wife whose silliness he’s largely responsible for (reflecting gender roles of the times), offspring whose behaviour confounds and challenges his complacency, and who has a distorted, inflated opinion of his own superiority.

Like his wife Mr Bridge drifts through life in myopic bafflement, constrained as she is by resolute belief in conventional values (domestic, social, sexual and cultural) of middle-class conformity. Furthermore he has a strong conviction that he’s irrefutably right about such things:

He wished to impress upon his son three things which he felt he had himself achieved: financial security, independence, and self-respect. In his mind these were of supreme importance.

This is a longer novel than Mrs Bridge, and is similar in approach: in 141 vignettes a collage or fragmented narrative is constructed of disparate scenes in Walter’s life which individually are mostly superficially trivial, but which collectively represent a nuanced, tragi-comical portrait of a conflicted, flawed man often seen to be as anxious and unfulfilled as his wife. I found it less successful than the earlier book, and felt that it could have been improved with some editing.

Many chapters revisit scenes and themes from Mrs Bridge: the rapid passage of time, and a commensurate sense of wasted life, for example:

The years were falling over like ducks in a shooting gallery, and it seemed to Mr Bridge that he had scarcely taken aim at one when it disappeared. Now another year was all but gone. However, it had been a good year. He was not dissatisfied. He had worked hard, harder than most men…He was acquiring more than he needed, quite a lot more. And yet most important was the happiness he sensed around him. He believed that his wife was happy and the children also, and because of this he felt their happiness within himself. [ch. 25]

This typifies Connell’s method in both novels. In something approaching free indirect style we seem to hear Mr Bridge’s voice or thoughts here, mediated through an almost effaced narrator. The opening sentence there is perhaps free indirect thought: it’s Mr Bridge’s syntax and idiom, with the clichéd image reflecting his limited cognitive/emotional range. He demonstrates his sadly deluded belief that material comfort equates with emotional fulfilment.  In the final sentence of this extract the narrator’s perspective shifts: no doubt Mr Bridge did complacently believe in his wife’s happiness, but the syntax now reflects his doubts about this conviction, and there’s the ironic gap between his own view and that of the reader that we noted in Mrs Bridge. That closing sentence demonstrates his inability to feel deeply or express the feelings he does have: his happiness is vicarious. This is his problem throughout the novel.

The opening chapter primes us for this paradox. On one level he genuinely loves his wife:

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her. She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her…he could think of nothing appropriate.

 

So the years passed…and eventually Mr Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

Once again Connell’s narrative focus here is on Mr Bridge’s thoughts, and his reluctance to understand or transcend his emotional torpor. When his wife has one of her periodic, and to him, inexplicable meltdowns, in a chapter called ‘You don’t love me’, she insists out of the blue on a divorce. ‘My life has been spent waiting on you and the children. None of you has been aware of me, but that’s all right. I realize you’ve written me off.’

The chapter closes with another visit inside Mr Bridge’s mind:

She never explained what he had done wrong, and after thinking quite a lot about this incomprehensible fit of hysteria he decided the best procedure was to ignore it.

This is his default response to life’s puzzles. Ironically this scene takes place immediately after an often-quoted chapter in which he contemplates his family chattering in the warm spring evening on the porch:

As he listened to their voices and to the seasonal music of the insects the problems which had troubled him during the day did not seem important, and he reflected that he had practically everything he ever wanted.

His wife’s ‘hysterical’ outburst indicates his failure to empathise with that family. He’s deluded himself that by providing for them materially he’s done his job. This suffices for him, and he’s incapable of comprehending why that isn’t sufficient for them. His birthday presents to them of stocks and dividends is his way of showing his love, and he doesn’t understand that this is perceived by them as unreflecting coldness in him. On the occasions like this when his complacency is challenged, he quietly dismisses the moment and evades emotional commitment. In ch. 60 when his wife demands to know if he loves her, his response is ‘bewildered’, and he finds the conversation ‘embarrassing’.

Numerous chapters indicate his bigotry, racism, homophobia and snobbery, his rigid belief in bourgeois values and conservative politics. So he refuses to give alms to beggars, and hates people who get into debt (he’s often angry about such ‘deadbeats’). ‘He disliked weakness’, is his ‘disgusted’ reaction to the children’s pet rabbit dying of terror when attacked by a dog. He is frequently portrayed as ‘exasperated’ or annoyed by what he perceives as the inability of others to conform to his own strict codes of conduct. He ‘hates’ a ‘bawdy story’ or swearing, but shows barely concealed admiration for Hitler and the rising Nazi powers in Europe. He thinks modern art is ‘junk’, and modern writers peddle filth. He feels ‘provoked’ by such subversions of convention.

He’s full of contradictions, though, and this capacity to show something other than bigotry enables us to find sympathy for his otherwise unattractive nature. Several chapters display his undeniably racist views, yet he scolds his daughter for being high-handed with their black housekeeper. He’s clearly anti-semitic, yet is horrified when his elder daughter Ruth accuses him of being prejudiced (‘you’re so hard and so cold and so humorless’, she complains). Then he writes her a long letter outlining how he’s helped Jewish friends. Her response is the same bafflement he experiences when his family behave unaccountably: ‘Then you do a thing like this. And for a Jew.’ He can’t understand what she means, especially when she goes on to tell him he’s treated his family ‘like strangers’: ‘Dr Sauer said you were a consummate Puritan’, she says, but he doesn’t ‘understand’. Instead we’re told ‘He was embarrassed and puzzled.’ He’s like this too when he contemplates his inability to ‘share’ himself with his family by telling them about his work. There’s ‘nothing to discuss’, he concludes, preferring his hermetically sealed solitude.

And when he writes the letter to try to explain to Ruth that he was shocked that she thought him prejudiced, he’s as incapable of expressing what he really feels to her as he was in the opening chapter about his love for his wife. The nearest he can get to expressing this love is to tell her the ‘good news’ about her stocks increasing in value; he takes his usual position of substituting material wealth for emotional investment:

It was not all he wished to say, but he felt he had clarified his position…He thought she would understand.

I shall round off this first post on Mr Bridge by examining two crucial scenes which could not have featured in Mrs Bridge, but which shed light on Connell’s method and narrative acuity. It’s a counterpart to the chapter in the earlier novel where Mrs Bridge’s unconventional, unhappy friend Grace Barron (‘barren’?) expresses her despair and boredom in ways that Mrs Bridge finds both familiar but also frightening. Both scenes present Mr Bridge’s awkward responses to his wife’s friend and her challenging ways.

In ch. 99 he is unable to avoid Grace and joins her at her coffee-shop table. She shows him the jade pig she’d just bought at auction. He’s pompous and sanctimonious about her being ‘stung’ and can’t understand (yet again!) why anyone would want it. He just hopes it’s worth it.

‘You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,’ she said. ‘I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?’

 

‘I’d have to think about it,’ he smiled, and picked up the menu…

The subject, for him, is thereby closed, for he clearly does not intend thinking about it; we’ve seen how he habitually avoids considering troublesome topics like this. Yet she’s just provided one of the few instances in the novel where we’re told exactly what Mr Bridge is. It’s to Connell’s credit that he always makes his readers work out what could be the significance of each chapter’s vignette; this time he skilfully uses the dialogue of a perceptive but damaged outsider to provide a rare insight.

She goes on to call him ‘a nineteenth-century figure’; she means he’s paralysed by his sense of propriety. As ever, Connell takes us into Mr Bridge’s mind:

This was the sort of remark she made [free indirect thought again], affectionate and yet insulting. He did not like it…She was a lost, unhappy little woman. He thought he should feel a sense of pity, but he did not. She jeered at too many things.

That Mr Bridge should think in this dismissively patronising way is indicative of his usual conflation of sympathy (he recognises her grudging affection for him) and self-righteous indignation. As a jeerer at everything he disapproves of, the irony and hypocrisy he emanates here are palpable.

When Grace goes on to goad him about his political views he’s stung into declaring a preference for Nazism to Communism, then refuses to engage further. She becomes upset, and complains that her banker husband won’t talk to her either:

‘He says I’m a woman and women have no grasp of politics. Nobody wants to talk to me. I feel like I’m living on an island.’

 

‘What sort of talk is that,’ he said with a deprecatory expression, and crooked a finger at the waitress…

She’s beginning to sound like his wife, and his instinctive response is to ignore or dismiss such talk. As the chapter closes she annoys him by suggesting that a Jewish financier he dislikes might become his neighbour; this

enraged him, but he was careful to hide his anger…He did not like the feeling that swept through him, or the urge to say aloud that he approved of the pogrom in Germany.

 

‘You really are, aren’t you,’ she said as though she could read his mind. ‘I always suspected it.’ And she began to cry.

It’s one of the most powerfully enigmatic and moving moments in the novel.

And it’s followed by another near the novel’s end, when Mr Bridge hears Grace has killed herself.

The idea of suicide exasperated him. Now her children must suffer…She had shown her children how little they meant…He knew he had been correct to feel nothing at the news of her death. What she had done was cowardly. What such a woman deserved was scorn and contempt.

This is surely Mr Bridge’s most despicable stream of thought in the novel. But we don’t have to like a character to admire the text, and what Connell is doing here is brilliantly realised. Just as Grace seemed to have briefly penetrated his stalwart emotional defences and his smug sense of superiority, enabling him to release his gentler inner self, she closes the metaphorical door she’d mentioned, leaving him secure in his self-satisfaction. He’s monstrous, but as vulnerable in his own immutable, emotionally stunted way as his wife. In that sense he’s possibly a more tragic figure.

Where Mr Bridge differs most interestingly from Mrs Bridge is in its protagonist’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his attitudes to sexuality. I shall focus on these (potentially controversial) aspects of the novel next time.

Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’.

Evan S. Connell (1924-2013), Mrs Bridge. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. US first published 1959, UK 1983.

Reviews of Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru have commented on the dangers of making the protagonist a dull character: this can lead to a fitful narrative. As I was reading Mrs Bridge, Connell’s debut novel, first published in the US in 1959 (but which began life as a short story published in The Paris Review in 1955), I wondered whether he was avoiding a similar fate.

He does. Largely as a result of the novel’s inventive form, style and structure, and the brilliant use of language.

It consists of 117 short chapters, each with a title, often enigmatically tangential to the content; for example, ch. 102 is called ‘Joseph Conrad’, but the novel Mrs Bridge reads in this 2-paragraph segment is never identified. It’s highly significant that she becomes absorbed by this novel, and she broods over a particularly pertinent passage, which states that

some people go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain.

She ‘brooded’ over this and thought deeply about it; then someone called her, she put it down, and never picked it up again. This is the story of her life in a sentence. I don’t recognise this passage: perhaps someone can identify it in Conrad’s work? It sounds more like Joyce to me (Gabriel’s internal monologue at the end of ‘The Dead’).

This oblique, deeply suggestive and sophisticated approach to the subject of the eponymous upper-middle-class matron’s colourless, quietly despondent life in Kansas City (where Connell was born) in the decades leading up to the start of World War II is idiosyncratic and engaging.

In a review written at the Asylum blog in 2010 the always astute John Self considers the novel as accomplished as anything by Richard Yates or William Trevor. Revolutionary Road, published just two years after Mrs Bridge, relates the frustrations and yearnings of a suburban couple in America in the fifties. But Mrs Bridge is a far quieter novel: neither partner has an affair, or yearns to write a great novel in Paris. It’s closer in theme to Ira Levin’s 1972 satire The Stepford Wives in its depiction of stultified, unreflecting conformity to the American bourgeois way of life and obsession with keeping up appearances unquestioningly:

She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others. (p.3)

Mrs Bridge said that she judged people by their shoes and by their manners at the table. (p. 13)

That her children rebel against her and drift away from her in their various ways is another of her life’s puzzling catastrophes; the irony of her name is that she is unable to bridge the gap that opens up between her and her family’s members. She is desperately lonely and bored, as the children grow up, become independent, and the maid runs the house:

She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know…Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened. Time did not move…So it was that her thoughts now and then turned deviously deeper, spiraling down and down in search of the final recess, of life more immutable than the life she had bequeathed in the birth of her children. (p. 74)

This is from a chapter called The Clock (time seems often to stand still for Mrs Bridge, while as we shall see it also races past). It ends with her bovine husband asking if the clock had struck; in fact there had been a symbolic flash of lightning – which illuminated something inderminate for her – and when she answers that it hadn’t, he resumes reading his paper:

She never forgot this moment when she had almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth.

This rare lyrical flight captures the essence of this sad, bemused, unfulfilled woman’s life: she ‘almost’ apprehends its meaning, but ultimately doesn’t. (That free indirect thought, ‘yes’ is reminiscent again of Joyce: Molly Bloom this time.) Yet she is aware there is or could be something else to it. She often asks herself ‘What should she do…?’ How fill her day? She shops for useless items, plays bridge, gossips, avoids conflict or expressing opinions with conviction, picks up then drops faddish hobbies and atrophies spiritually.

Mrs Bridge coverThe protagonist has more in common with Emma Bovary than with April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. But unlike Mme Bovary, Mrs Bridge never acts on her desires for something to happen in her life. Hers is a stunted life, and she lives in perpetual dread of acting or even thinking in an unconventional way, but gradually becomes dissatisfied with the rapidity and sterility with which it passes away in time; this is from as early as p. 4:

All seemed well. The days passed, and the weeks, and the months, more swiftly than in childhood, and she felt no trepidation, except for certain moments in the depth of the night, when, as she and her new husband lay drowsily clutching each other for reassurance, anticipating the dawn, the day, and another night which might prove them both immortal, Mrs Bridge found herself wide awake. During these moments, resting in her husband’s arms, she would stare at the ceiling, or at his face, which sleep robbed of strength, with an uneasy expression, as though she saw or heard some intimation of the great years ahead.

That paragraph sums up the novel. Like Mme Bovary, she feels ‘intimations’ that there must be something else, something better; ironically ‘the great years’ never come.  Compare this near the novel’s end, ch. 109:

The snow fell all night. It fell without a sound and covered the frozen ground, and the dead leaves beneath the maple tree, and bowed the limbs of the evergreens…Mrs Bridge was awakened by the immense silence and she lay in her bed listening…She had a feeling that all was not well and she waited in deep expectancy for some further intimation, listening intently, but all she heard before falling asleep was the familiar chiming of the clock.

This is typical of Connell’s beautifully modulated, understated prose. There’s a touch of the ending of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (again) there; indeed, Connell makes constant reference to the mid-western weather to reflect the emptiness or discomfort of Mrs Bridge’s existence. Every adjective here falls like a blow: ‘frozen’, ‘dead’, ‘immense’; the temporal significance of the ‘familiar’, relentlessly ticking and chiming clock is a motif through the novel, as we’ve seen; the nouns are equally telling: ‘silence’, ‘expectancy’, ‘intimation’ (again, but strikingly, heartbreakingly different from the vague optimism recorded at the start of the narrative and quoted just now). Mrs Bridge often seems on the brink of an epiphany, about to experience some revelation that will free her from her unexamined despair – but always she falls short of realising it: she falls asleep, redeemed by oblivion, or puts the book aside, or fails to pick up the phone to complain about the bizarre, possibly perverted junior school teacher who calls upon the children in her class – including Mrs Bridge’s young daughter – to comb her lank, greasy hair.

Joshua Ferris, in a spirited introduction to the PMC edition, likens her to iconic existential anti-heroes like Meursault, Molloy and Dr Rieulx. That Connell is able to invite such comparisons, which are valid, attests to the stature of this novel and the brilliance of his achievement.

It would be easy to dismiss the novel because of the unpleasant nature of the central married couple. They are bigoted, racist, and show little interest in culture or politics (Mrs Bridge flirts with the exciting idea of choosing her own candidate to vote for in an election, inspired by her rebellious friend, but as always she chickens out at the last minute and votes Republican as her husband tells her to).

In fact Mrs Bridge has always obeyed her husband. When a tornado approaches the Country Club where they are dining, he insists on remaining stoically (and stolidly) at table to finish his steak, despite the pleas of staff to join the other diners in the safety of the basement:

She wished he would not be so obstinate; she wished he would behave like everyone else, but she was not particularly frightened. For nearly a quarter of a century she had done as he had told her, and what he had said would happen had indeed come to pass, and what he had said would not occur had not occurred. Why, then, should she not believe him now?…The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself up into the sky and was never seen or heard of again.

There’s a pleasing symmetry in the syntax here: the clauses are elegantly balanced, but the point of view is clearly that of the unreflecting Mrs Bridge. The quiet, subversive humour is something of which she would be completely unaware, and it is this ironic gap between her own state of constant bewilderment and confusion and that of the more knowing reader that provides much of the substance and reward of the narrative. I particularly like the weird personification of the tornado at the end of that extract.

But Connell refrains from judging or mocking his characters or their shortcomings; like Cheever he trusts his reader to find a way of accommodating to them. They are rarely likeable, but entirely credible.

Ferris highlights the humour in the novel, which often ‘swerves’ into absurdity or non sequiturs. A random example: the Bridges throw a party, not because they want to, but because it’s time for them to ‘retaliate’.

The humour is contrapuntal to the darkness, angst and despair that Mrs Bridge catches increasingly frequent, semi-comprehending glimpses of as the novel progresses. One of the most interesting secondary characters is the startlingly unconventional Grace Barron, a prototype hippy or beatnik of later decades, who dresses like a boy, plays ball in the street, espouses socialism and picks political fights at cocktails parties when she’s drunk – and is more miserably unhappy than Mrs Bridge. She startles, even frightens Mrs Bridge by talking about profound matters with passion, while commenting on the bleakness of their fate as bourgeois women. This is poignantly, elliptically conveyed when they see in a shop some ‘tiny bells’ that revolved around a candlestick:

‘I feel like those bells’, said Grace. ‘Why are they turning around, India? Why? Because the candle has been lighted. What I want to say is – oh, I don’t know. It’s just that the orbit is so small.’

There chapter 19 ends, but we know that Mrs Bridge will be both puzzled and disturbed by this fractured but more articulate metaphorical insight than any she is capable of – yet she will feel a shock of recognition.

One of the the most frequently quoted passages in the novel comes when Grace desperately asks her friend if she ever feels ‘hollowed out’ in the back like the characters in the Grimm tale; soon after that she commits suicide – an act which Mrs Bridge is never seen to contemplate, but she never convinces that she has no reason to refrain from doing so.

There’s so much more to say about this novel, but there I’d better stop. I’ve said nothing about Mrs Bridge’s three very different children from whom she becomes estranged as they grow up, or her dull lawyer workaholic husband (ten years on Connell wrote a sequel from his point of view: Mr Bridge. The two novels formed the basis for a 1990 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, ‘Mr and Mrs Bridge’. I must read this to see if we gain more insight into his character; here he’s a cipher). I must just mention ch. 6, a typically strange vignette – this is far from a conventional narrative structure or style — just one paragraph long, in which Mrs Bridge encounters her son Douglas, as a little boy, standing contemplating the dressmaker’s dummy of her ‘figure’. Her smile fades, and she subsequently stows the dummy away out of sight. This is like a beautifully compressed novel in itself. One could write a whole blog piece just on its haunting, unsettling significance.

I don’t think Mr Ferris exaggerated when he said in a BBC interview in 2012 (which also featured what must have been one of the last interviews broadcast with Connell himself) that this novel is an ‘enduring masterpiece’.