So begins the 1928 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder. Yes, that Thornton Wilder, as in the author of one of the most performed high school plays ever, Our Town. I’m afraid the authorial presence you get in Our Town surfaces early here, but more on that in a moment.
What I want to note first is that we have stepped outside of the United States for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer. Okay, so Willa Cather took her hero for a stint overseas in World War I, and yes, some of the best moments in Arrowsmith consisted of an extended stretch in the Caribbean. Before there has always been an American center to the novel—often a quintessentially American center—and Wilder at least has the daring to move outside that sphere for his setting.
The course of the novel is laid out pretty clearly from the beginning. The collapse of the bridge was witnessed, we are told, by a Catholic missionary, Brother Juniper. Brother Juniper is so convinced that God purposes all things that he decides to make a study of the five lives lost in the collapse of the bridge, since clearly their fates were foreordained. He hopes, by careful examination, to prove God’s divine power to the “poor obstinate converts” he’s working with in Peru. And, we are told, he believes he’s gotten to the bottom of the situation without ever understanding who the five people really were. Our novel, then, will show what Brother Juniper did not see, and look into the question of whether human life is a fundamentally grim and pessimistic affair, or rather a beautiful (if subtle) mystery that connects us to a higher power.
This is a fascinating and promising premise for a novel—following five lives to a seemingly random and catastrophic death, seeking a clue in their details to the truth about the universe. I’ll confess, it may be the best novel I’ve read yet, if we only consider how it plays as a paragraph (envision for a moment how The Age of Innocence would sound in a paragraph summary….I wouldn’t read it, on that basis—would you?). But Wilder seems interested in writing this novel the way the Stage Manager narrated life in Grovers Corner. The narrator refers to “you and I”, meaning me, the person reading the novel, and him—in fact he notes that a character doesn’t understand the things that “you and I” do. We’re about one step from “dear reader” territory, here. It’s possible to write an engaging story using that kind of narrator–the omniscient benevolent uncle, condescending slightly to the reader but in a good-humored way that makes you content with your cup of cocoa and the sweetly realized conclusions with their pinkish moral hues. But I don’t think you can write a novel that examines the soul-scarring questions of mortality, fate, and free will in that voice.
I may be jumping the gun—Early Autumn, after all, began in not terribly promising fashion, and proved to be a really nice and well-constructed novel (in my opinion). But I’m skeptical. The novel at least has the merit of brevity (a little over 200 pages, and small, wide-margined pages, at that)….we’ll see how this goes.