Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mrs Bridge, by Evan S. Connell

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Evan S. Connell’s perfect short novel, Mrs Bridge, describes the straight line that leads from affluence to madness. Mrs Bridge has it all – the perfect lawyer husband, three children, home help and every possible material want satisfied. But all is not well. Beneath the surface laughs of this black comedy an ominous existential nightmare lurks. Mrs Bridge realises she is slowly going mad, but she can’t figure out why when she is so materially well-off. It seems once the American dream is realised, a terrible spiritual emptiness is left behind. 

Mrs Bridge (1959) is a mini-masterpiece that deserves a place alongside many of the great names of postwar American fiction, such as John Cheever, Nathaniel West, Sylvia Plath and Richard Yates. Its sharp dissection of the consumerist American lifestyle and the mental sickness it leaves behind makes the novel a superb study of existential despair. Evan S. Connell painstakingly describes the world of middle-class abundance and excessive leisure time, with his main character, Mrs India Bridge, slowly going mad in this gilded cage.

The delicate, light touch of Connell’s prose, coupled with the novel’s many farcical scenes, make Mrs Bridge seem a charming comedy of manners. And yet as the story proceeds it becomes more and more menacing and ominous. The brittle laughs hide a serious heart of darkness.

The story is a simple one. Mrs India Bridge, married to lawyer Walter Bridge, has three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas. The family is comfortable and affluent. They outsource most of their chores and have a full time maid, Harriet, who declines lucrative job offers from other families as she feels that the Bridges couldn’t ‘survive’ without her. The Bridges may have money, but would struggle to feed and clean themselves without hired help. 

This life of ease and comfort should be wonderfully perfect, but the children show signs of psychological disturbance. They don’t fit the perfect mould that Mrs Bridge has set for them. Especially troubling is Douglas, who takes to building a monstrous tower in a vacant lot, a visible expression of his inner tensions.

Meanwhile life goes on, albeit with great uncertainty. The residents of the rich country-club suburb that Mrs Bridge lives in seethe with distrust and discontent. Mrs Bridge even feels personally reproached by a copy of  Thorstein Veblen’s A Theory of the Leisure Class on display in a bookshop window. A sudden spate of robberies has the residents living on the edge of their nerves. When a party Mrs Bridge is attending is held up, her most vivid memory afterwards is one of astonishment at some of the cheap jewelry her friends were wearing. Mrs Bridge’s sense of reality and proportion are completely haywire.

The most salutary effect of Connell’s writing is his ability to evoke larger themes from small, subtle details. One favourite example is when Mrs Bridge is travelling through Europe with her husband on holidays. Interested in buying a painting, she is described taking a ‘little book’ out of her handbag ‘which equated American money with virtually everything on earth’. Americans can effortlessly summon the means to buy the earth, all by consulting a dainty book that fits in a woman’s handbag. When Mrs Bridge gets home from this whirlwind tour she confesses that the whole time she could not stop thinking about a hole in the local pavement that had long needed fixing.

First her friends start to confess to losing their minds, then Mrs Bridge herself feels sure that she too is going mad. When she asks her distant yet model husband if she can book in to see an analyst to get some help, he dismisses the idea out of hand. Left on her own, Mrs Bridge stumbles blindly through this spiritual desert. To the outside world life is utterly perfect, yet each hour is one of agonising boredom and inertia.

It’s no wonder that Jacqueline Susann would write Valley of the Dolls some seven years after Connell published Mrs Bridge in 1959. If Mrs Bridge had been able to find a support group like the female companionship in Susann’s blockbuster, then maybe she could have blown off a bit of steam about her boring husband, brattish children and long, boring days. Instead she almost asphyxiates in this silent chamber of numbing comfort. By etching this unerringly realistic portrait of the perfect American suburban wife, Evan S. Connell describes the straight line that leads from affluence to madness.

Mrs Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780141198651  RRP: $19.99