Thursday, July 05, 2012

Thornton, Luis and the Pulitzers
(not the name of my new band)

now finished: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
next up: I'm thinking Bill Bryson

Some of the early Pulitzer Prize-winning novels have disappeared into out-of-print obscurity. I mean, really, Lamb in His Bosom? Scarlet Sister Mary? And what can you tell me about the very first winner, Ernest Poole? Oh, but then Upton Sinclair won the Pulitzer in, silly, not for The Jungle. For Dragon's Teeth.  Sure, everyone loves Dragon's Teeth.

OK, so while The Late George Apley may not be on your bedside table right this moment, there are some winners from those first two decades of the Pulitzer that are still well known, probably because they had Oscar-nominated films made out of them. Examples: The Good Earth, Gone With the Wind, The Yearling, The Magnificent Ambersons, and -- the subject of today's discussion -- The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In fact, I do believe that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is more famous as a book than as a book by Thornton Wilder. Yes, that Thornton Wilder, the man who brought us Our Town, for which he also won a Pulitzer, by the way. In fact, he won two in the Drama category. Is he twice as good a playwright as he is a novelist? Maybe.

Let's get one thing clear right away: The Bridge of San Luis Rey is short. Really short. So if you have any inclination to read it, you might as well just go do it and you can probably finish before happy hour. I must say, though, that this book was not at all what I expected. The problem is, I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting. More action? More like The Bridge on the River Kwai?  Or maybe just a plot. Yes, I think I was definitely expecting a plot.

Instead, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is more of a meditation. There's a bridge, it breaks, and five people plunge to their deaths. (This is not a spoiler; it happens in the first sentence.)  The book proceeds to examine a bunch of questions, such as: Who were those five people? Why did they die instead of five other people? Were they connected? What does it all mean? Is God just messing with us? (I paraphrase.)  Some of these questions are answered, but most of them aren't.

So, if the questions aren't answered, then what does happen in The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Well... that's hard to say. There's a marquesa, an actress, and two twins that nobody can tell apart. (I know, it sounds like the start of a joke, but they don't walk into a bar. They're never all in the same place at once.) You get to know the people, sort of. You ponder love. You ponder life. I suppose these aren't bad ways to spend a couple hours. Have I mentioned that the book takes place in Peru?  This was interesting to me because I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa's El Paraiso en la otra esquina, which also spends time in Peru, and it's all kind of making me want to go there really quite a lot. But, yeah, Peru. Now, the Pulitzer criteria of course is that the award must go to a "distinguished work of fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life." It never actually says this has to be United Statesian, and careful readers will recall that I dig it when we remember that this whole big ol' land mass of ours is "America." But the Pulitzers are on top of that, because for the History category they do specifically mention "the United States" whereas for fiction, poetry, and biography it's more broadly "American." Which is in itself interesting (and also why The Tiger's Wife didn't win this year).

Obviously, I have never watched the film of The Bridge of San Luis Rey or maybe I wouldn't find it to be as random as I do. It's not just Peru, or the characters who aren't really connected until they are forced to be connected, but more that when I finished this book I just didn't feel satisfied.  Maybe as it sits with me for a few weeks or months I will come to look back on it more fondly. I certainly support lines like this:

"For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?" - p. 57

And this:

"He was willing to renounce the dignities of public life, if in secret he might feel that he looked down upon men from a great distance, knowing more about them than they knew themselves..." - p. 75And I definitely relate to lines like this:

"...a rather pinched peasant-girl, dragged from the cafés-chantants and quite incapable of establishing any harmony between the claims of her art, of her appetites, of her dreams, and of her crowded daily routine. Each of these was a world in itself..."  -p. 84

And this:

"He was contemptuous of the great persons who, for all their education and usage, exhibited no care nor astonishment before the miracles of word order in Calderón and Cervantes." - p. 77

But something left me wanting. It's not that the whole wasn't greater than the sum of its parts. On the contrary, I think the sum of these parts is much less than the whole, and I found that frustrating. But I wouldn't say it's not worth it. It's short, remember?  So is life. This book will make you think about that.

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