What Can We Steal From Tom Bissell’s “A Bridge Under Water”?

Title of Work and its Form: “A Bridge Under Water,” short story
Author: Tom Bissell
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in Issue 71 of Agni, an excellent lit journal.  Feel free to order a back issue from those fine folks.  You may also access the story through EBSCO; feel free to ask your local librarian how to do so.  They love helping people with this kind of stuff.

Bonuses: Here is a New Yorker article about Mr. Bissell’s involvement with video game writing.  Here is Karen Carlson’s interesting analysis.  (There is indeed a big difference between “liking” a piece and “admiring” it.  Here are Ann Graham’s thoughts.  Here is the Carol’s Notebook review of the story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
“He” and “She” are celebrating their recent marriage in Rome.  A hearty congratulations to them.  He is slightly older than his wife of three days, but may be a little more immature than she.  The narrator makes it VERY clear that there is conflict in this union, not the least of which is their religious difference.  She wants the child in her belly to be raised Jewish (even though she’s not very faithful) and he is not at all religious.  He and she make the Roman rounds, ending up in the city’s biggest synagogue.  He isn’t very pleased that the synagogue segregates men and women during services, so he causes a mild scene in protest.  She just wants to go with the flow, but he doesn’t allow it; they are escorted out.  Hand in hand, this “one story” ends and the characters proceed into the rest of their lives.

This story is particularly notable for its third person narrator.  It seemed to me that he or she or it is clearly on the side of the woman.  What makes me think so?

  • In the first paragraph, He is described as a bit of a glutton, “vacuuming up” a plate of pasta, gulping a glass of wine in three swallows and “single-handedly” consuming half a basket of breadsticks.  (That last one doesn’t seem so bad.  If two people are eating, isn’t it polite for one person to limit himself to half of the table’s supply of breadsticks?)
  • In the second paragraph, She is described as eating in a very civilized manner and He “put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old.”
  • In the fourth paragraph, He accidentally clears crumbs from his lips and has shaggy “tinder-dry” brown hair.

So He is immature and has difficulty avoiding gluttony (my favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins).  Why does it matter that the narrator seems to be against Him?  It’s not a problem, really.  I think that the narrator is “sticking up” for Her.  There’s a bit of an imbalance of power between the two.  He is thirty-four and she twenty-six: two very different ages.  She is pregnant and must deal with the impending change in a physical manner that simply escapes Him because of human biology.  He’s a lot more outspoken with his disdain for religion; she seems to be working through her own conflicts in a much quieter manner.

When you write in the third person, you must decide how close this voice will be to the characters.  Will the narrator have access to everyone’s thoughts or only those of one character?  Will the narrator be impartial or take an extremely active role in shaping the reader’s understanding of events?  It seemed to me that Bissell (whether consciously or subconsciously) put the narrator in Her corner.

Whether or not you realize it, the white space at the end of your story has meaning.  That, after all, is the place where your characters will continue to live their lives.  Mr. Bissell has given us a newly wed couple suffering from friction and possible incompatibility as well as a gestating baby.  The final sentence of the story is not the end for He and She.  So what happens in the future?

Mr. Bissell lays in some clues.  Early on, we’re told that She plays Rock, Paper, Scissors a little differently than the rest of us.  You can throw Fire, capable of destroying the other three, but you can only throw it once in a lifetime.  A page later, He uses his Fire and reminds her, “you’ve still got yours.”  Indeed.  This is a little bit like Chekhov’s Gun.  Her Fire.  She’s going to throw it at SOME point in the white space at the end of the story.

With a page to go in the story, Mr. Bissell’s narrator says the following as He and She are being escorted from the synagogue:

At this her husband turned to her in something close to lip-licking panic.  Not that he was being forcefully removed from a place of worship–she knew he would tell this story,  with certain redactions, for years–but rather at the thought of everything else that had been set in motion here.

So Mr. Bissell isn’t writing a novel here.  We don’t know EXACTLY what will happen.  But we do know that He will tell this story for a long time and that something has been “set in motion.”  What’s the effect of these hints?  There’s a lot more weight to the events of “A Bridge Under Water” and the reader brings a lot more to the last sentence of the story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Empower your narrator to be a character in the story.  When you’re gathered around a campfire, the storyteller can’t help but become part of the tale.  Why shouldn’t it be the same for the narrator of a short story?
  • Sprinkle in hints as to what will happen after the story is over.  There may be no more typing after the final sentence, but your characters are still walking around and living their lives.

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