Thursday, March 13, 2008

The New Yorker: "The Bell Ringer" by John Burnside

It might be my fault that I didn’t like this story. I was in the mood to be transported and this didn’t do it for me. It felt like mush. Familiar mush. Well-written mush, but mush all the same. And the ending might have given the story an opportunity a chance to redeem itself, but it only made things worse. Spoiler warning here: I’m probably going to give away the ending of the story, so if you haven’t read the thing yet and you plan to, come back to this discussion after. The beginning of the story is sleepy. Too sleepy. Eve is mourning her father’s death and is clearly not feeling good about her marriage to Matt, who has been a pretty insensitive prick while Eve’s father has been lingering. After her father is gone, Even isn’t too sorry that Matt’s out of town so much, although she is lonely. (Hmm, this woman’s ripe for an affair! But that would be really boring, so it better be a really interesting affair.) The only bright spot for her at first is visits from her sister-in-law Martha, but then Even joins a bell-ringing group in the local village and that’s pleasant enough, particularly because she has thoughts about the handsome young American who is, for reasons that don’t really make sense, also in the group. (We can see where this is headed.) Martha tells Eve something she doesn’t want to hear – she’s having an affair. Martha doesn’t offer the identity of her lover and Eve doesn’t ask, and this is our clue that the lover’s identity is significant and that we are about to be surprised by that secret identity. (Let’s see: we’re pretty sure Eve’s attempts to cheat on Matt are going to be frustrated because that wouldn’t be very interesting; the only other man in the story besides Martha’s husband and Eve’s husband, who is Martha’s brother, is the young American. So guess who Martha’s having an affair with!) Actually, Eve reminds me a little of Nita in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” from a couple of weeks ago, but with much less depth, and I’d say that’s true of the whole story, as well.

March 17, 2008: “The Bell Ringer” by John Burnside


Paul Epstein said...

Ok, I'll try and be brief this time. I agree with Cliff that the plot is corny and predictable, and that the story is therefore disappointing. I think the characters do have depth -- I disagree on this. I also think that the young American's involvement in the group is fully plausible. Many clubs or groups have one person who joined for an unusual reason, and doesn't fit in. His reason is that he's interested as a tourist in what he sees as an historical British activity. My opinion is that the only weakness is the corny O'Henry-type plot. Sorry, I went on longer than I planned

Anonymous said...

Funny, I liked the story a lot. I guess because I have been in that kind of relationship and I thought he did very well describing it from the woman's perspective. Although, it didn't seem quite so believable that she wouldn't have talked to Martha, who seemed to be her good friend, and instead ran away from woman I know would do that anyway. I think I liked the landscape descriptions, the bell ringing and that, so it was not so much the plot I responded to.

Paul Epstein said...

I also liked the story a lot although I didn't say so in my previous post. There are two very different questions: How much did I like the work? Do I think the work is of great quality? I think Cliff gave reasons why he doesn't think the story is of the highest quality, and I agree with Cliff. But I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Paul Epstein