The Brooklyn Bridge spans the Hudson River, connecting the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. When it was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—longer than the previous record-holder by fifty percent—and was for many years after that also the world’s tallest structure. The literary symbolism of its neo-Gothic arches soon became as well-trafficked as the bridge itself. It came to represent the majesty of human ingenuity and perseverance, collective aspirations of prosperity in an increasingly disparate New York, the incontrovertible force of modernity, somehow both weighty and supportive. Of course, it also represented materialism in all its glory and ignominy. The image of the unscrupulous shyster angling to sell a piece of riverside property to a gullible yokel eager to own a bit of history is still as visible in our cultural landscape as the bridge itself is in our physical one.
It is apt, then, that Robert Westfield’s first novel, Suspension, uses the Brooklyn Bridge to explore the spectacle of imagination. The bridge serves as a Juliet’s balcony, a place where lovers whisper endearments to each other and to the city lights below. One character attempts a lover’s leap from it, spurned by his lady but embracing the city he once despised. And it is the bridge’s awesome armature and cables that suspend the romance of self invention that is at the heart of both the story and New York City.
Spanning the months preceding and just after September 11, 2001, Suspension follows the quotidian-cum-quixotic life of Andy Green. A question writer for an educational testing service, Andy delights in obscuring the right answers amidst wrong ones; he zealously obscures not for the consternation that it may cause college hopefuls but for the sheer pleasure of construction, the wordplay. Though a witty and attractive man, his life teeters toward the ordinary. In fact, it seems as straightforward and uncomplicated as an un-obscured multiple-choice question.
But there is more amiss than middle-aged ennui. Andy’s mother tried to drown him when he was an infant. His sister is performing lewd acts with her boss in the parking lot of a Petey Pepperoni franchise in suburban Maryland. His friend Sonia Obolensky, a recent Russian émigré and cabaret song stylist, has smuggled a cousin into New York to pose as her double. And his new boyfriend, Brad Willet, a sexy philanthropist who is helping to fulfill the dreams of cabaret singers everywhere, is desperate to keep a dangerous secret, one that threatens to leave Andy in the lurch and the law in hot pursuit. Westfield is wonderful in bringing in exploits, bumbling errors, and zany characters, all of which skew Andy’s life toward the surreal and regale the reader with d) all of the above.
What ensues is a delicious farce replete with mistaken identities, mayhem, and murder afoul. It is an impressive debut: well-written, well-edited, and hopefully, equally well-received. The prose is frugal, yet alight with the wordplay that Andy—and clearly Westfield—so much admires. Early in the book, Andy meets Sonia in a language exchange program, where she is learning English and he is practicing Russian.
“I’ve already noticed that you seem to be overly fond of conjunctions. You tend to begin your sentences with and.”
“No. This is okay. This is no problemo.”
“Actually it is a problem and you should also know that problemo is not English.”
“And my teacher she tells me no problemo.”
“Well, she’s wrong.”
“Nyet. I do not think.”
“She’s adding a Spanish o to the end. It’s fine, it’s just not English.”
“And it’s fine. Yes.”
“No. No, it’s not really fine.”
“And you just say fine.”
“I take it back.”
And although the characters are quirky and charming and the dialogue downright hilarious at times, Westfield’s greatest triumph is in their believability. He achieves this admirably, particularly given how svelte the book is.
Westfield doesn’t take his reader for granted—he takes us for a ride instead. Spry and agile, the book is accomplished because it depends equally on plot and characterization while upending our expectations of both. There is a mystery, one integral to Andy’s development, that is never solved. No deus ex machine or voiceover tidily ushers in the denouement.
Perhaps, though, Westfield’s bravado is most evident in collapse: Andy’s and the Twin Towers’. Westfield neither explains away 9/11 as a presage to war nor elegizes the extraordinary loss. In fact, he strays far from the pathos that much post-traumatic art condescends to: for Andy, the incidents of that day are just that, incidental. A tragedy of his own overshadows: More than a month prior, Andy is ambushed while strolling along Ninth Avenue with his sister’s fiancé, Peter. Although Andy escapes with only minor bodily injuries (Peter is brutally beaten), his psyche is devastated and he holes up in his apartment. Suspecting gay bashing or the magic mafia (Peter is a low-tech magician), he paints his front door canary yellow to blend with the walls, locks his three locks, and survives on delivery, requiring secret passwords from even the mailman.
Andy’s life on the lam gives Westfield room to display an ingenious take on the conventions of farce. We’re treated to the unfolding of Andy’s neuroses from the close, smelly confines of his tiny apartment. Instead of the protagonist embroiling himself in the frenzied action of the drawing room, Andy’s paranoia pulls the frenzy inward. And it is funny, full of mental pratfalls and pathetic antics. When he resurfaces months later to retrieve a package left by his erstwhile boyfriend, the package that he and Peter were set to retrieve the night of the attack, he does not discover the reason for Brad’s flight but rather something altogether unexpected: that someone in a green trench coat is following him.
Andy comprehends that the world has continued without him, even in the wake of incomprehensible disaster. What he failed to understand was how much he missed life and how much he missed of it. Westfield brings this home by ensuring that Andy’s reentry is far from graceful, telescoping the events of his absence so that they bombard him as soon as he steps into the bright sun and harried crowds. It’s a wonderful effect, and it propels the reader along with Andy in a very cinematic way, a la Woody Allen. The pandemonium that he hoped to avoid through his seclusion was only deferred, and now it sings. One might think the song is something suitably operatic, Wagner perhaps. But given the special attention Suspension pays to the American songbook, it’s probably Cole Porter.
It’s challenging to discuss this romp without revealing too much of the plot, but that would ruin the pleasure of reading it. As the book progresses, mysteries are unveiled, each a delightful surprise. Westfield’s achievement is notable: a lithe narrative supported by good craft. With Suspension, like the bridge it pays homage to, it is very easy to suspend your disbelief, to walk the span between ideas imagined and things wrought.
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