BASS 2016: John Edgar Wideman, “Williamsburg Bridge” from Harper’s, Nov. 2015

So here I am, determined to jump, telling myself, telling you, that I’m certain. Then what’s the fool waiting for? it’s fair for you to ask. In my defense I’ll say I’m aware that my desire to be certain is an old-fashioned desire, “certain” an obsolete word in a world where I’m able only to approximate, at best, the color of a bridge I’ve crossed thousands of times, walked yesterday, today, a world where the smartest people acknowledge an uncertainty principle and run things accordingly and own just about everything and make fools of the vast majority of the rest of us not as smart, not willing to endure lives without certain certainties. I don’t wish to be a victim, a complete dupe, and must hedge my bets, understand that certainty is always relative, and not a very kind, generous, loving relative I can trust. Which is to say, or rather to admit, that although I’m sure I’m up here and sure this edge is where I wish to be and sure of what I intend to do next, to be really certain, or as close to certain as you or I will ever get, certainty won’t come till after the instant I let go.

~~ Complete story available online at Harpers’s

I’ve always wondered why so many suicides pause on the ledge, or the bridge, or with a gun to their head. Then again, I’ve never watched someone commit suicide, unless you count the long, slow ways we all do to one degree or another. Maybe it’s just in movies and TV shows that this happens. Because once you decide, wouldn’t you want to get it done as quickly as possible? Wideman’s narrator recognizes the simple truth that certainty has different meanings on firm ground versus on the ledge.

It’s not a traditional story. Even saying it’s a stream of consciousness work doesn’t really cover it, because it seems pretty deliberately written, as though to evoke SOC without actually executing it. Topics loop from Sonny Rollins playing his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge during a long hiatus in his musical career, to the narrator’s family, to issues of race, to the women in his life.

There’s a lot of language play: the word “color” appears more than you’d expect it to (guest editor Junot Díaz calls it “a meditation on the extraordinary resilience of ordinary black lives in the American Century,” a resilience that is now under more stress than ever). Posterity and Pentecost are woven together, bringing in Habakkuk 1:3-4, a most pertinent Bible verse for this time if I’ve ever heard one. This story was written in 2015, remember. But not everyone was caught by surprise on Nov. 9, 2016.

On the other hand, no doubt color does matter. My brownish skin, gift of the colored man my mother married, confers added protection against sunburn in tropical climates and a higher degree of social acceptance generally in some nations or regions or communities within nations or regions where people more or less my color are the dominant majority. My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction hardwired. Thus color keeps me on my toes. Danger and treachery never far removed from any person’s life regardless of color, but in my case danger and treachery are palpable, everyday presences. Unpleasant surprises life inflicts. No surprise at all. Color says, smiling, Told you so.

I was trying to make some sense of this, looking for patterns or structure, and came up blank. So I did the easy stuff first, and went looking for images of Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge with his sax. Then I went looking for his music, and it struck me, if ridiculously late: “bridge” is a musical term. It’s that piece in a song that you sit through waiting for the familiar verses and chorus to come back. Some people will tell you it needs to be put in a particular place, but I’ve seen a lot of opinions on that, including the “put it where you need to break the monotony”. I found lots of rules on various songwriting sites, rules that take on new meaning in the context of the story: Create an opposite mode to the chorus; move to a new key; let the lyrics deepen the meaning of the song; use the final chords to connect smoothly with what follows. Hmmm.

However, there is another approach. I asked my mooc friend Mark Snyder, a musician and composer, for his definition of a musical bridge. Among other things, he said: ” Watch for the surprise twist! That’ll be the bridge,” an idea that fits the story in at least three ways I can think of: the surprise twist to this guy’s life, the surprise twists within the substance of the looping narrative itself, and the surprise twist in the final paragraph. Theme as structure.

Then Mark told me a story about Walt Parazaider, saxophonist with the jazz/pop/rock band Chicago: he was asked to write a bridge in A flat, without any idea of what the song surrounding it was. It’s part of “Just You and Me” (about the 2:10 mark) and works just fine, so maybe the rules aren’t that important. Bridge as improvisation, a little something different, unexpected, to get from one round of you-know-how-this-goes to the other. I think this perhaps contrasts with the story, as the storybridge is intimately familiar with what came before, if not what came after.

And then there’s the last paragraph of the story. I’m tempted to quote it, but that wouldn’t be fair; the story is online, the link’s above, go read it. Talk about a surprise twist: is this the story we thought it was, or did we just go metafiction? Maybe the bridge comes at the end, an idea loaded with meaning in this context.

The bad news, and the good news, in one package: Everything we read reveals our biases. And through that knowledge, we can tame them. Or not: it’s a choice. I’m unfamiliar with Wideman’s work (why is that, I wonder?). The way I saw the narrator in my mind’s eye changed when he referenced his black father, at which point my expectations became an embarrassment, and a call to personal examination. This is the value, for me, of reading diversely. Another year in which BASS, which orders its stories alphabetically by author, ends on the perfect note.

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One response to “BASS 2016: John Edgar Wideman, “Williamsburg Bridge” from Harper’s, Nov. 2015

  1. Pingback: BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now | A Just Recompense

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