First up, the short version, from the perspective of someone who, after having written most of the original review before reading what anybody else wrote about the book, has gone back and read some of what other people have said, and has found himself wondering if he’s either entirely daft, or somehow really off the mark on this one
Back in 2005, which in Internet terms is like saying back when your grandparents’ grandparents were little tiny babies and we all used dial-up modems and we liked it, I had kind things to say about How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer, and I said them here and here. Today, it’s 2010, which in Internet terms is like saying newspapers are dead and we’re all livetweeting our own grandchildren’s college graduations from our flying cars, and many people have extremely kind things to say about Julie Orringer’s debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, as can be seen here, and here, and here. And here, and (to a slightly lesser extent) here, and (to a greater extent) here. Without having read every word written on the book, I sense it would not be off the mark to suggest the book as received near-universal praise from all who have reviewed it.
Which is good, and fine, because it is a strong book, and I also have kind things to say about it. But I also have unkind things to say about it, because, what may or may not have been said is that book is severely over-written. I mean, it’s a good book, overall, and I liked it, overall, and if you were into Underwater you’re going to read Bridge or have already read Bridge and nothing I say is going to convince you not to read Bridge, not that I’d want to. There’s a lot of good words in that book. But there’s also too many words in it. And it’s hard not to wonder whether the book would be the actual masterpiece that many want it to be, if only there was significantly less of it in its final form.
And then, the more vaguely review-like version, kept largely intact in its original form, aside from occasional edits, and a little bit of aside-action
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer is a good novel that suffers from being over-written. I suppose that how much it suffers depends on how one reads the book. Take your time with it, fall into it, read it when you want to, like a long Sunday drive through the country, and I imagine the extra words will feel less burdensome. Try to snap through the book on dollops of budgeted time, though, and it starts to be a bit of a drag.
The problem is that this is a long book that doesn’t entirely earn its length, getting there less through interesting content (of which, it is true, there is a surfeit—there’s true art hiding inside this under-carved sculpture) and more through repetitive, over-explanative text. It’s not a matter of preferring telling to showing; Orringer does both more than her story requires. By the book’s end, it’s hard not to imagine whether or not it might have been a masterpiece if only it had been a couple hundred pages shorter.
To be clear, I want to unabashedly like the book. (Anybody who liked How to Breathe Underwater, Orringer’s 2003 story collection, will. And we are legion!) And the book does offer much to like: the story is solid, ambitiously rendered and sincerely told, with a lovely arc, interesting characters and situations, an intriguing perspective on frequently trodden historical events, and abundant, well-researched historical detail. There’s an engaging, breathing world here, despite the stylistic choices, despite whatever setting-related baggage any reader might understandably bring to the table. That word “sincerely” is a carefully selected one. In our ironic, snarky, post-post-modern, selfish, cynical, let’s-be-frank less-than-reason-oriented era, the pure, straight-forward story telling on display here is to be lauded and encouraged. Even while calling for some concession to our fractured attention spans.
It’s a little weird, reading this, well after having written it originally; I think I was really upset by this book, by what I wanted this book to do, and it’s like, I kind of lashed out a little bit here, and I came off as seeming somehow much more harsh that I maybe intended to? Yet in retrospect I don’t regret what I said and I stick to my original reaction to the book, because I remember reading it, and I remember how I felt when I was reading it: I remember like I felt like this so-and-so book was never going to end. Even though I liked it! Or at least, even though I knew I was reading a good book. Did it feel a bit medicinal? A bit like having a prescription that you know you’re going to need to take daily for the rest of your life just to survive? A little. A little something like that.
And I mean I guess I hope it will become more clear by the end of the review why I felt that way, because I mean, it’s weird, that I would call a book too long, right? Some of my best friends are long books. I remember liking so much of Against the Day, which is probably as absurdly long a book as there is, and Pynchon is nothing if not an over-writer? And David Foster Wallace? And so on? But these other books are ones I would happily re-read even today, where as by the time I finished Bridge, I knew I was done with it and I didn’t want to go back. (Which, obviously, makes reviewing a book hard, in that, typically, normally, I would love to actually read a book twice through, once straight through, once as the review is shaping, but, here, with this one? No way.)
In a sense I’m glad the review for this book fell through, that the place it was going to be posted went fwoop, that this has become a little off-the-grid post on a blog I honestly have little idea how many people have followed through to from its previous incarnation, because having come off that Lethem review I did last year, I certainly didn’t want or intend for my next review to be another negative one, all the conversation around negative reviews aside. Like, it’s just too early in my so-called book reviewer career to become mister negativity, and plus it’s no fun to hate on things you wanted so bad to like, as a reader foremost before being a reviewer? Basically, there was a lot more gross feeling around this book than I cared to experience, which I think I’m only now beginning to try to truly purge with the posting of this post.
The book opens in Budapest in 1937 at the Royal Hungarian Opera House. Here, we meet Andras Lévi, a young Jewish man from “Konyár, a tiny village in the eastern flatlands” on “the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express” to attend the École Spéciale d’Architecture. In Budapest, he sees the opera with his brother, Tibor. There,
…their seats were at the top of the house. Not for them the three marble-arched doorwards, the façade with its Corinthian columns and heroic entablature. Theirs was a humble side entrance with a red-faced ticket taker, a floor of scuffed wood, walls plastered with crumbling opera posters.
…introducing, in one fell swoop, thematic drivers of much of the rest of the novel: class structures and conflicts, the world of art and the world outside of art, experience and inexperience, the world that could be or should be and the world that is and could never be. In meeting Andras himself, we’re meeting the character on whose generally even-tempered, fundamentally likable shoulders the story will be carried for about ninety-nine percent of the remaining pages, as he finds love, hangs on to it by a regularly fraying thread, and suffers, a lot. (Spoiler alert: World War II happens.)
In focusing outwards on the next eight years of European history from Andras’s perspective, Orringer makes an admirable, even bold choice. Meeting the two brothers, the way we do, one could not be blamed if one expected some point-of-view switching to happen, by chapter or by section. (I did.) But we mostly stick by his side, occasionally breaking away to witness stretches of historical happenings or character back stories.
Of the enemble cast that drifts in and out of Andras’s life, Claire Morgenstern provides some of the most mysterious and heartbreaking back story. Ballet instructor, fellow Hungarian, Andras’s eventual lover, known to us in time as Klara, a woman with “a quiet, astonishing beauty—fine bones, a mouth like a smooth pink-skinned fruit, large intelligent gray eyes,” her history is slowly revealed during her lengthy courtship with Andras, which itself contributes to much of the length of the opening half of the novel, as they experience the tension of an entire continent arising around themselves. While their love story can be hit or miss, depending on one’s tolerance of and/or engagement with the ga-ga faces lovers make at each other and the drama they create for each other, it does, along with the time Andras spends not sleeping at school—honestly, I think he sleeps about four total hours in the course of two years—provide the necessary ground within which the far darker latter half the book takes root.
And it’s in that second half that the novel…well, doesn’t precisely take off, so much as switch dramatic gears, casting the open half in a shifted light. There’s plenty of dramatic tension in this world of unforseeable outcomes, between individual characters and the circumstances they are folded up into. The veil of identity characters drape over their lives is held to the light, its thinness revealed. Pretty much everybody, whatever trouble they may have made for each other previously, however they may have acted as foils for Andras earlier in the novel, is pretty much equally screwed. This is a novel in which The Bad Things Can Happen. Orringer is not afraid to land her punches, and nothing good that’s won couldn’t have been lost by luck or chance. As the bodies pile up and the distances between characters spread wide, as The Good Things seem farther and farther away, we are treated to a fresh reminder of how horrifyingly fucked up the Twentieth Century could be.
But: without reversing the previously claimed stance that Orringer doesn’t pull punches, she does bring a light touch to the proceedings that highlights a delicate theme of some essential strand of decency of human beings, the shocking moments of kindness that exist against the blackest backdrops. As war stories go (and even when, in the first half of the novel, it’s not really a war story, it’s still really hard not to read it as a war story) this one could have gone either way, and she walks a nice line between the darkness and the light. It’s a story the telling of which could have inclined but did not incline the teller to misanthrophy. It’s a story of a survival and its opposite. The tension between the two gives life to a novel so steeped in death.
- I probably could have cut everything but this section and called it a day.
- I really straight-up loved the architecture school sections early in the book. It would be fair to suggest that any bitterness or angst toward the book that seeped into the review came from the fact that the book took us out of that stuff and into the other stuff. Which, I mean, real talk, duh, of course, it had to. But I mean, that stuff just nailed it for me, so hard. Like, I’m more interested in architecture today than I was before I read this book. Suffice it to say Orringer did something really really right in there, even if it’s been so long since I’ve read that stuff that I’d have a hard time telling you what exactly it was.
Still: there are too many damned words in this book. The prose is over-written at times so flagrantly that it’s hard to understand why nobody called her on it during reviews, critiques, revising, editing. Or did nobody ask why she needed to spell everything out? Would symbolic and figurative weight have been more impactful than blunt explication? Unkind readers could see contempt directed at them by the prose, if it weren’t for the fact that even the extra words are so sincere, so straight-forward. Ultimately I think the over-writing is a sort of stylistic choice, one I would be hard-pressed to agree with.
Consider the following passage, from deep in the latter half of the book:
The confusion of the retreat toward Hungary begat strange convergences, foldings of fate that arose from the mingling of dozens of labor-service companies. Again and again they came across men they knew from the far-off life before the war…. A third night, stranded in a March blizzard, Andras found himself sharing a corner of a granary-turned-infirmary with the managing editor of the Magyar Jewish Journal…. The man was scarcely recognizable, so stripped down by cold and hunger as to seem only the wire armature upon which his former self had been built; no one could have imagined that this ravenous thin-armed man, his eyes glittering with fever, had once been a bellicose editor in an Irish tweed jacket.
Strange convergences, period. Men they knew, period. Scarcely recognizable, period. Less words make for better prose and—despite the above quote’s claims to the contrary—more imaginative involvement.
Consider the following passage, from a bit before the preceding quote, as the men in a labor camp company discuss a risky attempt to trade valuables for necessities. József Hász, a free-spirited artist, self-important playboy, and strong foil for Andras, has been caught up with Andras in the camps after spending years being bribed out of them:
But József Hász wasn’t laughing; he was scanning the circle, his expression shading toward panic as he failed to find an ally. Andras watched with a pang of empathy—and, he had to admit, a certain guilty satisfaction. Here was Hász learning once again that he was not exempt from the forces that shaped the lives of mortal men. In this orphanage in Ukraine, no one cared whose heir he was or what he owned, nor were they impressed by his dark good looks or his side-leaning smile. They were hungry; they needed someone to go to town for food; he fit their parameters. In another moment he would have to capitulate.
Guilty satisfaction…period. The rest, we know, or can infer.
At the risk of edging into pile-on territory, consider one additional example from earlier in the novel, set during a tense scene between Andras and Klara. (The daughter is neither Andras’s nor Novak’s.)
This wasn’t about him, he understood. It was about her own life, about how everything had changed when she’d become pregnant with her daughter. That was what had caused the veil to fall. When the waiter came she ordered absinthe for both of them, a drink she chose only when she was sad and wanted to be lifted away from the world.
But absinthe didn’t have the same effect on him; it tended to play dirty tricks on his mind. He told himself it might be different here at Nice, at this dreamlike hotel bar overlooking the beach, but it wasn’t long before the wormwood began to do its poisonous work. A gate swung open and paranoia elbowed through. If Klara was melancholy now, it wasn’t because she’d lost her life in ballet; it was because she’d lost Elisabet’s father. Her one great love. The single monumental secret she’d never told him. Her feelings for Andras were chaff by comparison. Even her eleven-year relationship with Novak hadn’t been able to break the spell. Madame Bernard knew it; Elisabet herself knew it; even Tibor had guessed it in the space of an hour, while Andras had failed to recognize it for months and months. How absurd of him to have spent the summer worrying about Novak when the real threat was this phantom, the only man who would ever have Klara’s heart. The fact that she could sit here in a sea-green dress and those sandals, calmly drinking absinthe, pretending she might someday be Andras’s wife, and then allow herself to be pulled back to wherever she’d been pulled—by him, no doubt, that nameless faceless man she’d loved—it made him want to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she cried.
“God, Andras,” she said finally. “Don’t look at me that way.”
“You look as if you want to kill me.”
Yikes. We get it, and we got it before we ever picked up this book, and this book isn’t going to make us get it any more than we already do: dudes in love are total spazzes. It’s not the writer’s job to explain to us every last facet of the character’s mental machinations, but to show it happening, to get out of the way right after “paranoia elbowed through” and let the excellent, terse snippet of dialogue after the paragraph’s end do its magic. And yet this is not to say the prose left behind would be poor prose, as it’s not. It’s just, in context, relatively unncessary.
It’s possible, of course, this is less prevalent that I’m making it out to be, that some bad cases went down the wrong pipe choking me more than they needed to. And, after all is said and done, I did like the book, and I mostly actively wanted to keep reading all the way through to the end. But what’s aggravating is that for as much as there is to talk about here, all these deep veins of complex themes, enough to keep any self-respecting book club off and running past the end of the hour, I’m left more disengaged by the weight of the prose than engaged by the story it told. It’s style at war with substance, without easy victory on one side or the other.
III (Aside, in lieu of conclusion).
I never really figured out how to conclude this review, since as much as part two of it was the “why this book works” stuff, part three was what I really wanted to get across, and there’s some essential contrast or conflict between the two that can’t be easily wrapped up or resolved. Nor of course need it be. I mean, I probably shouldn’t have gone out of my way to sound like a condescending asshole here and there, but. I felt a little condescended to, here and there, in context, which might be the part of those quotes that don’t resonate well the way I intended them to, in the review; so often, it really did seem like I was seeing on the page what I already knew it my head, which I found annoying, grating even, as if the book was working against my desires and interests in some antagonistic way. I mean, this isn’t an art school film, this is a straight-up historical novel, right? So. I really have no conclusion. I want to read her next book, whatever it is; I do not want to read this book again, whatever it was.