Bridge, by Robert Thomas
“Welcome to the prayer-strewn pews of my brain,” Alice, the narrator of Bridge tells us, and quickly, we understand that this intellectually gifted young woman sees the world, and herself, in unconventional, and often dangerous ways. Robert Thomas’s powerful debut novel, published by BOA Editions in October, takes place in fifty-six brief chapters that read as deeply interior lyric stories. Alice is a troubled, solitary young woman who lives alone and works as a word processor in a San Francisco law firm. She is also in love with her co-worker David, the “impeccable” married man with whom she ends up having an affair. The physical bridge in Bridge, is San Francisco’s Golden Gate, a structure that makes key appearances in Alice’s chronicle—as object, metaphor, as a physical place from which to ponder her ongoing argument with existence.
Along with an unconventional structure and lyric voice, Bridge (winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for fiction ) is defined by the consciousness of Alice, for whom visions, associative leaps, and at times, delirium, all verge on the ecstatic. Thomas, whose previous books include the prize-winning poetry collections Door to Door (2002) and Dragging the Lake (2006), employs poetic language to portray Alice’s feverish reveries, obsessions, inquiries, doubts and certainties. Her stream of thought runs from references to high and low culture, music, art, literature, the Bible, geology, history, medicine, family, love, and connection, to name a few—all of which coalesce into a spiraling narrative design. As Bridge moves forward, Alice’s thoughts always spool back to the problem of David, a man who appears to love her, and yet what comes between them is not David’s wife Janette, but Alice’s uncertain grip on reality.
The narrator’s unreliability is doubly so. Her take on reality is tenuous, leaps of thought rise up like flames, and visions run in equal parts ecstasy and darkness—as here, when Alice ruminates on the droning intimacy of the workplace, and how it brings a problematic closeness to David:
“Think of a prisoner in solitary confinement, his only companion a beetle with a yellow band on her back who comes and goes through a crack in the concrete. Every morning the beetle faithfully returns and scurries across the floor while the man talks to her, gives her crumbs from his crust, imagining an echo of the sun’s warmth rising from her carapace when he bends his cheek to her. Yes, I say, him and her, but I suspect I am the prisoner and David is the beetle.”
Running throughout is Alice’s internal dialog about her planned suicide, a plan she sees as “the only way to get rid of the stranger inside,” and send “a telegram to David in a code only he could decipher.” This creates a a thriller-like tension—by page 21, Alice has already bought the gun, and her traction on reality continues to slip by ever greater degrees, all the while the Lady Smith and Wesson is sitting in the bottom of her purse. Alice’s obsession with ending her life dovetails with her doubts about David’s love, a tension Thomas uses to maximum effect.
“What I want to record here is a ‘sort of’ history,” Alice tell us. In the process, Bridge takes us far inside her character to, well, bridge, her reality with ours. Thomas’s masterful application of image and language links the knowable aspects of Alice’s life—the bus rides and work rituals and solo takeout dinners—to the mystery and ruminations of fervent, troubled mind.