Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thornton Wilder

I've just finished Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey - a book about which I knew very little, but immediately enjoyed.

Part of what I liked most about this short novel is Wilder's style - which is cool, complex, and precise. But more than that: it's consistent. I admire that in a writer and think that Wilder's prose are top-notch.

Another aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was that little twist whereby we are presented at the start with visions of the end - and we spend the remainder of the novel accounting for what we have already been told.

Actually, this is one reason that I think Waugh's Brideshead is effective - namely that we are greeted with Charles Ryder as he exists at the end of his tale, and yet we do not know him as we will.

The same holds true in Wilder's story: we are presented with the collapse of the bridge in a far and distant land and spend the remainder of the novel contemplating the lives of those affected by this seemingly random occurrence.

Finally, while the novel was written almost a century ago, it shares something, I think, with contemporary movies like Babel, which weave tapestries composed of intersecting lives and interests. I liked that Wilder did this, too: his characters are connected by their shared tragedy, but their lives touch prior to the collapse of the bridge as well. This provides for increased emotion, particularly toward the end of the book.

And speaking of the end of the book: the first four parts of the novel are fantastic - and go a far way toward uncovering the meaning of fate (and other, equally difficult terms). That's why, though, I didn't feel that the final section - which accounts for the thoughts of Brother Juniper who has witnessed the bridge's collapse - was entirely necessary. Because by the end of this novella, the reader - if he's been doing his job - recognizes what Wilder's been plotting all along: a meditation on life and its awful fragility.


  1. Nice piece, Jesse. Wilder is underrated.

  2. I loved this novel as well. Another great, very similar, short novel is Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

  3. Thanks, Frank. And thanks, cguerin. I haven't read Chronicle, but from what I've heard, it's built in a similar way to Wilder's novel. I'll definitely add it to the list!