July 2, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette


How many times do you see a novel title with a contraction in it? How about the contraction "Where'd"?

That's this book in a nutshell. It is steeped in the vernacular in a way that might make it incomprehensible to readers a hundred years hence, like much of Tristam Shandy or The Frogs is to us, but it's a tour de force. Any review of it will tell you it's smart, funny, and witty, but that's just the beginning. Bernadette is the snarky, brainy mother of the teenager narrator, always at odds with the world around her. When she goes missing, the daughter tries to figure out what happened to her,  dragging up emails from neighbors, moms at her own school, husband, husband's dedicated secretary to patch together what's happened. The use of emails allows the author to inhabit all these different voices, and not just once but over time, turning aggressive or meek, conspiratorial or cold, as events develop.

I had to wrack my brain to dredge up what work I associated with this technique, and I finally came up with it: C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. In this 1941 epistolary novel, the senior devil Screwtape mentors the junior tempter Wormwood in his attempt to snare his first soul. You only see one side of that communication, Screwtape's, and he is alternately condescending, groveling, and abusive, depending on how Wormwood's success (or lack of it) has increased (or decreased) his status in the organization. Clever. And efficient in terms of storytelling, as a simple "I hope you didn't take my last correspondence seriously . . ." tells you almost all you need to know in terms of how events have played out since.

The set-up of Where'd You Go, Bernadette also makes for fun reading because the unreliable narrator is the most fun of all the narrators, and the novel is told by a bunch of them.  A novel like this shows that fun can be just as good a means of getting to weighty matters as sadness or tragedy. 

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