BASS 2011: Tom Bissell, “A Bridge Under Water” from Agni

The Bone Chandelier at the Sedlec Ossuary

She had plunged her fork exactly ten times into her strawberry risotto and taken two birdfeeder sips from the glass of Gewurtztraminer that her waiter (a genius, clearly) had recommended pairing with it. She glanced up and smiled at him (more or less) genuinely. The man put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old. He never appeared to taste anything. The plate now before him looked licked clean. When he return-serve smiled, she tried not to notice his red-pepper-and-wine-stained teeth or the breadcrumbs distributed throughout his short beard. They were sitting on the AstroTurfed outdoor patio of an otherwise pleasing restaurant found right behind the American Embassy in Rome. They had been married for three and a half days.

I very much admire this story. That isn’t the same as liking it, but it’s a good thing in its own right.

Whenever a famous author gives one of those “How to Write” talks, she’ll say something like, “Make each word count.” Kurt Vonnegut insisted every sentence had to advance plot or reveal character. I’ve never been so aware of that advice as I was reading this story. Every sentence, every word, means something. By the second page, I felt like I knew these people inside and out. Turns out, I didn’t know the half of it. Which is good, too, because if you know everything you need to know by the second page of a twenty-two page story, that’s twenty pages of thumb-twiddling.

It’s information-dense. I am an underliner (which is why I enjoy reading bought books so much more than library copies) and most stories get an underline or two per page. This story is more underlined than not. Every phrase says something about these people, their situation, how it’s come to this, where it might go from here. And beautifully, too.

Look at the paragraph quoted above, the second paragraph of the story. The woman (the characters aren’t named in the story) seems a bit OCD, maybe has an eating disorder – counting fork plunges, birdsips, fretting over a crumby beard. Who plunges a fork, anyway? Put a fork in it ’cause it’s done? Plunging the knife? A more sexual plunging? It’s not a neutral verb. The genius waiter – what a generous description for someone who probably has a memorized list of wines to push with certain dishes. And the man – voracious, but soulless. And sloppy. The smile they exchange – that “return-serve smiled” is great phrasing; smiles of obligation, concentration, will, rather than joy or intimacy. We learn they’re in Rome. Well, that puts a spin on things. Then the last sentence slams down like a hammer: they’ve been married three days.

Who return-serve smiles at their spouse on their honeymoon?

Such artfully created tension begs for an explanation. We find out a few other things in these opening two pages (one and a half, actually). The big issue at the moment is: should they sightsee at another church, or at a museum? She’s still examining him and finding flaws everywhere: his eyes are hard, he overslept while she hadn’t slept at all (when honeymooners are on different sleep cycles, it can’t be good), his shirt is open too much for her tastes. Shopper’s remorse? They discuss the bone church they’d seen the day before, a church made of the bones of the monks who’d lived there over the ages. This is such a startling, loaded image, I had to pause and think about it for a while.

It’s true, you know. There is such a crypt. Several, in fact, and the one in Rome may not even be the most elaborate (I’d put my money on the Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic, pictured above). And Tom Bissell (who writes more nonfiction than fiction) should know. He’s just completed a 1500 page nonfiction manuscript about the final resting places of Jesus’ apostles. And here I thought it was creepy that the church where I used to sing had the ashes of a reknowned former organist embedded in the wall of the choir loft (not to mention a Revolutionary War cannonball in the chandelier. I guess I should be glad it’s not bones).

Anyway, the story. Turns out she is three months pregnant, which adds a whole new layer to things. They’d also had a major issue the night before – I’m not sure “fight” is the right word – because she, being Jewish, wants her baby to know s/he is a Jew and what that means. She is pretty much a-religious at this point; Hebrew school made little impression on her; but she wants things to be different for the next generation. He, on the other hand, is a steadfast atheist who finds such a proposal offensive.

It’s an interesting issue to have come up on a honeymoon.

A sexual encounter loaded with symbolism, a synagogue tour that becomes complicated, and that’s pretty much the story. The bare bones of it, anyway. I’m beginning to appreciate the truism that a great story can’t be summarized. Because there’s so much more, and every detail counts. I really, really admire this story.

But did I like it? Hmmm. Let’s look at the signs:

- I took a lot of breaks while reading it. To change the cat’s water, make myself another cup of coffee, brush my teeth. But that isn’t a bad thing. A lot of that was just sensory overload rather than avoidance; like I said, it’s information-dense, and just about every paragraph has something I want to think about.

- Do I want to read it again? Maybe, but not right now. It’s not an easy, quick read, though it’s very accessible and the story itself is great. There’s humor in it (the above quote is pretty hilarious to me, actually, once I figured out what was going on). The author admits the two main plot points are taken from his own life. He wrote the story “to determine why I can sometimes be an insufferable dick.” It’s very brave of him, to make himself the villain. And I admire – again – that he was able to write the observer point of view so extraordinarily well, without including all those little justifications we make for ourselves when we’re being dickish and we know it.

- Do I want to read more by this writer? Yes, in fact, I do. He has a book of short stories (God Lives In St. Petersburg And Other Stories which I have put on my library list. That isn’t quite the same as ordering Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration right after having read “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” but it’s more than I do for a lot of stories.

So I liked it, yeah, I did. But I really, really admired it.

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One response to “BASS 2011: Tom Bissell, “A Bridge Under Water” from Agni

  1. Pingback: The Sing-Off 2011: Episode 7, Superstar Medleys « A Just Recompense

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