The past few posts have looked at bridges, a move that songwriter’s make. “Song Bridges” introduced the main idea of a bridge and “Song Bridges Part 2 — Middle Eights” described a particular species of bridge. In “Song Bridges Part 3 — Film,” I noted some analogs in the realm of film. Today, I’d like to do the same with literature.
To review . . .
- A bridge comes after the halfway point in the song form, so that the main ideas can be established.
- It strikes a musical and lyrical contrast with what has come before it. It challenges or tests the song’s established ideas.
- As a result, the song’s meaning expands.
Bridges In Literature
The connection to literature had not occurred to me until I was writing my memoir, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. As I edited the draft, I told myself, “It needs a bridge.” So I wrote a bridge (I may discuss it in some future post) and was surprised to find that bridges can work in books just as they might in songs.
Here are two instances of bridges in fiction.
Example 1 — “The Swimmer” by John Cheever
This famous short story that was later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster. (I’ve not seen the film; I’ll be commenting only on Cheever’s original version.)
The story takes place in summertime and opens as the main character, Neddy Merrill, sips drinks poolside at the house of friends. As he thinks about leaving, he concocts a novel plan for getting home.
“He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country . . . / . . . he was going to swim home. / . . . The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence.”
("The Swimmer" by John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, pp. 603-604.)
So he begins his indulgent journey, dropping in on friend after friend, pouring himself drinks and swimming across pools as he makes his way. The landscape breathes with class privilege and perhaps a bit of the cool detachment of Neddy’s social set. Whether or not this or that couple is happy to see him walk through their bushes and dive into their pool, he seems not to care. He’s too taken with himself and his endeavor to care.
Halfway through the story, Neddy must cross a highway to continue his swim home.
“Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was merely a fool. Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway — beer cans, rags, and blowout patches — exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful.”
("The Swimmer" by John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, p. 607.)
He makes his way across and his journey continues through the landscape of poolside privilege. His arrival home is not the one imagined at the beginning of the story (and in lieu of revealing more, I’ll simply encourage you to read this and other Cheever stories).
Neddy’s crossing of the highway, in my mind, functions as a bridge might in a song.
- It comes at the halfway point in the story (so the main ideas and textures have been established).
- It reconsiders the ideas about Neddy established in the first half of the story. As he drops in on friends and swims through their pools, he exudes boundless social and physical confidence. Trying to cross the highway, he looks vulnerable and weak.
- It supports this reconsideration by a change of scenery (analogous to how song bridges support lyrical questions about the rest of the song with a new musical setting). His swims are set in elegant surroundings. Suddenly we now see beer cans, rags, and other roadside trash.
As the result of this bridge-like moment in the story, we return to the story with a more complete picture of Neddy, his world, and perhaps a darker sense of what awaits him.
Example 2 — A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This wonderful novel (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award) is a series of stories about a group of friends and acquaintances who work in the music business. The stories in the chapters accumulate into a highly diffuse narrative punctuated by leaps of time and place—from the 1980s to the 2000s, from San Francisco to LA to New York, and so forth. The main characters are music-business professionals, though some of the stories begin when these characters are teens.
Late in the book, the narrative is taken over by the preadolescent daughter of one of the main characters. She documents the life of her family, including her older brother’s obsession with pauses in rock & roll songs.
Why this feels like a bridge:
- The chapter comes after the primary questions and landscape has been established.
- The chapter steps away from questions about adult careers and relationships and takes up questions of family life from a child’s perspective.
- It turns from questions about the music business to questions about music itself.
- It highlights these reconsiderations of the book’s dominant questions with a departure from the book’s dominant form, for this chapter is written entirely in Powerpoint. Again, this is an analog to a song’s shift in musical landscape during the bridge.
As we emerge from this chapter to the world where adults tussle over careers, relationships, technology, and music, we have a deeper appreciation for what’s at stake.
Jennifer Egan listened to a lot of music as she wrote this book. I mainly think of A Visit From the Goon Squad as being structured as an album of stories, but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that amid all of her listening, she might also have conceived of the book as one epic song with a bridge.
Thank you for reading. The next post will address the Why and How of adding a bridge.