October 11: “10 1/2” by Robert Thomas

Good day to you, Story366! On yesterday’s post, if you checked it out, you noticed I was writing during the Cubs-Giants playoff game, and every time there was a score change, I added that in, in-between paragraphs, just to keep you updated (not that my blog live-updates or anything, but that’s the feel I was going for). The Cubs took an early lead, saw it shrink from three runs to one, and that’s when I finished my post. In case you’re for some reason waiting for me, of all sources, to find out who won, here you go: The Cubs lost. The Giants took a 5-3 lead in the 8th, then the Cubs dramatically tied it in the top of the 9th at 5, then a couple of hours later, the Giants scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the 13th. A long night for a not-so-great result, but that’s sports, that’s fandom. Game 4 of the series—the Cubs are still up 2-1—starts in a couple of hours, and while I enjoyed writing about fiction (and writing about writing about fiction) during the game, I think I’ll knock out today’s entry beforehand, just so I can pace, pray, and puke in peace.

Today I read several entries from Robert Thomas‘ collection Bridge, out from BOA Editions (though, for the first time I’m covering that press, not a winner of their annual fiction prize). Bridge is a book unlike most I’ve read, as it’s not really a short story collection as it is a novel in short poetic proses pieces. And actually, since I’ve only read the first fifty pages, I’m not sure if it’s even a novel, if the arc fits the definition of a novel, or if any other definition of a novel, for that matter, is satisfied. At the very least, the pieces are all connected, all feature the same protagonist, Alice, and seems to move a narrative forward. And while I’m spending a lot of words trying to figure out what to call this, I should also note that Bridge is a really fantastic book, one that I wish I could just read all the way to the end now, but since this is Story366 and not Novel-(Maybe)-in-Poetic-Prose-Pieces366, I stopped so I could get this entry done (plus, my kids need dinner and that Cubs pregame show is about an hour away).

Bridge is about Alice, who works in a law firm (though not as a lawyer) and is seeing David, a coworker, who is married to a woman named Janette. As with any other woman (or man), having a relationship with a married person has its ups and downs, and certainly, this is true for Alice’s relationship with David. On one hand, she is aware of the risks and sacrifices that David is making to be with her and is fundamentally flattered. On the other (much more prominent) hand, she is by definition treated like a second-class citizen, their relationship a secret, all of their meetings implicit of the fact that he can’t do anything to upset Janette; i.e., every time David, or any wanderer, is with their lover, they are actually more concerned with someone else’s feelings. It’s the undeniable sadness of being the interloper, only one hope keeping you going, keeping the relationship viable, and this is certainly true for Alice: One day, David might leave Janette and devote himself to her full time.

I’ve just done two things I normally don’t do: 1) I’ve described the collection as a whole instead of the story I’m focusing on; and 2) I’ve made great assumptions about not only Alice, but I’ve turned her into a type, a character, not from literature (i.e., a trope), but of society. Since most of Thomas’ stories are only a couple of pages long, but they’re connectedI for some reason thought it was a good idea to establish what’s going on in the book and who Alice is.

Not that I want to relegate Alice to a type, because that’s unfair, to her as a character and to Thomas as a writer. Actually, she’s one of the more well drawn humans I’ve read all year. In each piece, Thomas presents an array of new facts about her, details that round her out. Sure, she’s an other woman and faces those same challenges—she’s most definitely frustrated and saddened by her situation and dreams of David leaving Janette—but in Bridge, it’s more about who Alice was before meeting David and especially about who she is when she’s not with him (which is most of the time) that really matters here. And that makes sense: With David, she’s happy, lacking in conflict. Without David—now and before him—she’s a mess.

Since this is Story366, I needed to pinpoint one story and it was pretty easy to pick “10 1/2,” which is about ten stories in. The number in the title refers to the number of people who Alice has had visit her apartment since moving in over ten years ago. This is a brilliant little story—four pages, twice as long as most in Bridge—for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s a list story, so we as readers are drawn through, wanting to find out what completes the list. Next, the story is sad at its core, the fact that a young, bright woman living in New York has had this few visitors in that expanse. Most of all, Thomas sucks us in because we want to know how she had a half visitor (I was guessing pregnant woman, but was wrong): How’d she manage that?

Thomas takes us through the list (in prose, not by numbering—this isn’t David Letterman) and we find that Alice is even more said than we thought, bordering on pathetic. The first visitor was Alice’s landlady, Mrs. Gucci, and the next, Mrs. Gucci’s son, Michelangelo (Thomas has a great sense of humor, by the way). Two more are painters. Two more are police. I won’t reveal any more of the list, or the story, but you see where this is going. Alice is a lonely woman, hence her willingness to be the other woman, hence her strong desire to have David show up at her door, suitcases and toothbrush in hand.

Robert Thomas won the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction for Bridge, which I buy, as this book is without a doubt worthy of such awards. In this collection, or whatever you call it, Thomas explores a human who has put herself in a disastrous situation, one that is awful, but perhaps better than her other options, which seem to be nothing. Alice is so well drawn, it gets more and more painful to work through Thomas’ book, as her sadness, her quest for happiness, make the hopelessness of plight more apparent with each detail. It’s who she is. For example, in a not-“10 1/2” story, young Alice nearly kills herself by grabbing a loose electrical wire, her sister watching; Alice not only needing something dramatic, to feel an extreme, but she requires an audience. This is just one detail that’s peppered throughout Bridge, a book that truly is as great as the sum of its parts.

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One thought on “October 11: “10 1/2” by Robert Thomas

  1. Pingback: October 12: “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” by Ann Pancake – Story366

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