Review – David Tallman

June 19th, 2010

David Tallman

The first class I took in college was Introduction to Literature, taught by Dr Robert N
Lawson, and it remains my idea of what a college course should be.  Far from the spoon-fed,
student-satisfaction-survey-driven approach that now seems to predominate, Dr Lawson took the view that student failure was the student’s fault, not his.  Student success, similarly, was to the student’s credit, because the student’s job was to keep up with the endless zigzagging of Lawson’s meandering mind.  I loved Dr Lawson’s classes for precisely that reason: figuring out what he was talking about and where the hell he was going was a challenge I enjoyed, a stark contrast to the intelligence-insulting approach of professors who espouse the philosophy of “student-centered learning.”

Twenty years have elapsed since I took that first class with the great man, and the novel he
was tinkering with even then, The Bridge of Dreams, finally finds itself between soft covers.  It is a novel of ideas, though longer on the ideas than on the novel.  In truth, it is a tour of the mind of Robert Lawson, with a thin scaffolding of plot and undernourished characters.  But if you’re the sort of person who enjoys engaging with ideas for their own sake – who, in terms that Dr Lawson should surely appreciate, liked college because you liked learning, not because you needed “the piece of paper” – you should enjoy The Bridge of Dreams.  I recommend it for the same reason I would have recommended Lawson’s classes: because I know no better living guide to the world of ideas than Dr Lawson.  The Bridge of Dreams is, as it were, an omnibus Lawson lecture, and everyone should have the privilege of at least one.

A tour of the mind of Robert N Lawson will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it bears
noting that all the characters speak in the same voice, which is, distinctly, Lawson’s.  All the
characters have read and treasured the same books not just as Lawson, but as each other, and many of these books are far removed from a plausible common curriculum.  Neither do the characters exhibit much psychological depth or individual personality, so we don’t really get any sense, for example, of just why the dominant female, Betty, is so captivating to the three males whose lives revolve around hers.  And the singular lack of personal conflict among the characters – even when one runs off with another’s wife – leaves little in the way of dramatic tension (though Lawson does create some effective suspense).  In this and other matters, Lawson violates the creative writing dictum, “show, don’t tell.”

The novel is too rigorously schematic.  Each of its twenty-four chapters is precisely twenty pages.  Each is given a date, though in fact the novel is a retelling by several characters of events that took place in the past, so nearly every paragraph opens with at least one set of quotation marks, and long (implausibly) verbatim quotes-within-quotes remembered from decades before leave some pronouncements bracketed within as many as five quotative removes.  Lawson could have used a good, stern editor, to cut those lengthy monologues down to size – and to fix annoying tics, like the fact that the three central characters, though ostensibly sitting alone together on a single afternoon, address each other by name, it would seem, every few seconds.

Each chapter is given the title of a major work of literature, which serves various roles
within it: topic of discussion and organizing principle, mirror of events in the characters’ lives.
That’s a nice touch, and Lawson even weaves the literary allusion into a sonnet at the beginning of each chapter.  Yet Lawson’s life as a professor of literature may have spoiled things here.  It might have been better not to have tipped the reader off, to leave it to us to figure out the connection between each chapter and its canonical referent.  Telling us up front that this chapter is meant to evoke, say, The Scarlet Letter seems to give away the game. I’ll commit the same mistake here, though, and probably for the same reason, so the point is not lost on the inattentive reader: the foregoing criticisms are intended to engage with the text under discussion, to pique the curiosity of the reader enough that she will want to read The Bridge of Dreams and form her own opinion.

I’d like to believe that Dr Lawson would expect no less, would savor a critical review more than a fawning one.  And not despite but because of these criticisms, I heartily recommend the book.  Whatever its faults, it’s still a wonderful read.  Yes, it’s a romp through the mental university of Robert Lawson, but it’s accessible and exciting, a rich brew of literary criticism and philosophy, of reflections on life, its intersection with art, and how the difficult task of negotiating the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can be facilitated by an active engagement with the world of ideas.  It is a sort of literary My Dinner with Andre: nothing much happens, just some people sitting around talking; yet the reader comes away replicating the experience the text describes, becoming so rapt in contemplation as to momentarily escape this fallen world into a higher realm.

Many an old man will write a memoir or autobiography, foolishly hoping that an indifferent world might be interested.  Lawson, now in his 80s, has done something better.  By removing himself as a character, he has managed to distill a lifetime of reading, learning, thinking, and discussing into a highly readable, richly engaging tale with just enough story to keep his cerebral discourse from bogging down.

It will never be reviewed in the TLS or the New York Review of Books, but I’d place Robert Lawson’s Bridge of Dreams in the same tradition as such acclaimed novels of ideas as Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  In fact,
to go full-Lawson (The Bridge of Dreams includes an appendix of reading assignments, further evidence of the déformation professionnelle wrought by his third of a century as a teacher), I’d suggest reading the three as together.  Then, of course…discuss!

  1. Alex
    June 19th, 2010 at 12:33 | #1

    This is a good review.

  2. Barbara Lerma
    July 7th, 2010 at 00:06 | #2

    This review is provocative with analyses that will pique a reader’s curiosity about the novel. In fact, I launched a discussion of The Bridge of Dreams at Washburn University’s book club meeting on July 1, 2010, by reading excerpts from this review. We read the final two paragraphs verbatim and plenty of fascinating discussion ensued after reading your cue: “Then, of course, discuss!”

  1. May 30th, 2010 at 13:28 | #1