This is not a conclusive review. You can’t absorb a novel like The Bridge of San Luis Rey in one reading. It’s actually the shortest novels, like this and The Old Men and the Sea that require re-reading. Although it seems on the surface that huge novels like Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow show their merits only on second reading, it’s mostly to understand What’s Really Going On. In San Luis Rey, it requires re-reading to get the meaning under it.
The story is simple, but it’s obvious Wilder wants to do more than just tell a story. The Bridge of San Luis Rey consists of three chapters, each focusing on one or two characters and two other chapters that tries to point out a common theme in these stories. The premise already makes it clear it’s all about What It Means rather than the story itself. The book is about the five dead people. It’s not about how their death affected others or what happened after, but tells stories that we already know how they ended with hope to get meaning out of them.
It’s a bold feat. It’s a novel that confronts the themes of ‘pointless deaths’, something authors like Martin use in attempting to cover up for their awfullness (Or just to ‘inject realism’). In reality, death seems random. Tragedies hit you out of nowhere and great people end up on crumbling towers. We see life always through the lens of stories though, and we only tell stories because of what they mean.
This sounds more like a philosophical text, and it reads like what. Wilder tells more than he shows, throwing a lot of details but never lingering on them too much. It’s an example of too much minimalism. Wilder tried to trim all the bullshit that will clog the novel, but he ended up trimming too much. Although we got the core of each character, the core is still just one single piece. In order to understand a character we need both its core and what revolves around it. A picture of the sun is not a picture of the solar system.
Thus, Wilder attempts to examine his characters doesn’t really work. It feels more like entertaining snippets, but what he needed was a grand narrative that gives the deaths meaning. “One More Thing” is a fantastic story, one that manages to say a lot with a single page. No matter how much Carver tells you with this story, he couldn’t connect it to any grand purpose. By keeping back most of the information about the characters, Wilder doesn’t make them deep enough to be able to derive a grand conclusion from their stories.
It’s sad that Wilder failed doing what most authors must do. Aside from not telling enough,San Luis Rey is a fantastic novel. Although it asks you to reach conclusions using fictional evidence, Wilder makes his character feel real enough. Their stories are different, and each has to be approached differently. Although Wilder offers a conclusion at the end of the novel, he still offers the reader the option of reaching a different one by reading the stories again and finding different threads. The two ‘non-story’ sections read more like Wilder first wrote the stories, read them, and then put an analysis of his own.
As for his conclusion, it’s one that in any other book would be considered just an attempt to make the reader feel good. It’s a testament to Wilder’s talent that he takes “All you need is love” and makes it deep. That’s because his notion of ‘love’ is beyond romantic love, and the stories he writes about the subject deal with it from different angles. He also puts this idea face-to-face with its worse challenge, and only then asks himself if it still holds up. Often, the stories are about when this idea of love fails and hurts others. An idea is only as strong as the challenges it faces. Was the challenge Wilder put hard enough? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to discuss it with anyone.
How good this novel is, I will only know with more readings of it. At least as an attempt to create a brilliant, short novel, it’s good enough. Wilder has interesting ideas, interesting stories and interesting prose. It wasn’t great on the first read, but it left me thinking about it enough to make me want to read it again. A book has to be first good enough on the first reading before it gets a few more. I don’t consider it one of the greatest yet, but it’s one that may get there someday.
3 fallen bridges out of 5
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