For people of a certain political persuasion, the last few years have consisted of being overwhelmed with anger and fright yet too damn exhausted to be able to expend the emotional and mental energy of getting outraged at everything. Aaron Thier‘s The World Is a Narrow Bridge is a thoughtful, fictional testament to this very mood. While there are key differences in plot and structure, Thier’s novel calls to mind Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (1990), another lightly humorous metaphysical novel that can be read as a reflection of prevailing anxieties and concerns about our existence and the fate of the world. If Good Omens is an artifact of 1990’s apocalypse hullabaloo notable for its wry wit, petty divine figures, and surrealistic flourishes, then The World Is a Narrow Bridge plays a similar role in our angst-ridden, oversaturated media landscape/world of 2016 and beyond.
When an appropriately crabby and arrogant Yahweh shows up to Murphy and Eva, demanding that Eva become his prophet and spread his gospel, they take it upon themselves to travel from where they’ve been wilting in Miami to a journey across the country, trying to find a place they can make their home as they muse upon the task they’ve been given. (Oddly enough, the mention of social media in the summary of The World Is a Narrow Bridge barely ends up playing out in the novel itself, seeming to me more like a publisher’s attempt to be zeitgeisty and pithy than an actual description of what Yahweh asks of Murphy and Eva.)
Murphy and Eva are recognizable types, almost verging towards parody, only to be brought back to size by jewel-like moments of deeper characterization. They’re the kind of people who are highly-educated, well-meaning, liberal-leftish NPR listeners, who drive a Prius, who consider themselves open-minded secular humanists, who balance their desire—and ambivalence—towards having a child with whether it’s ethical to have a child when everything is on fire, either literally or figuratively. They’re the kind of people who believe sincerely in “returning to a natural way of living”, but who also may have just read that slogan on a box of raisins—grudgingly accepting of their lives under mass media advertising, while trying to claim originality and sincerity. But the moments where Thier suspends his gentle skewering of the sorts of people Murphy and Eva represent are genuinely wonderful, as when Murphy randomly encounters his younger self in Arizona, a place he’d once visited when he was younger, and attempts to pass on some wisdom but ends up getting schooled. Murphy, a more anxious soul than Eva, is incredibly relatable as he tries to square with the idea that he should have something to offer a more naïve version of himself but that he ultimately doesn’t have the kind of answers he wishes he did.
Following the path of Murphy and Eva’s cross-country road trip, The World Is a Narrow Bridge is a purposefully meandering read. Good Omens hurtles towards the aversion of a fiery end of the world; The World Is a Narrow Bridge, however, is as rudderless as its characters in search of something meaningful. It tells a story about wandering aimlessly while literally wandering and digressing in a narrative sense, dipping and curving along pathways of thought and philosophy, jumping among seeming non sequiturs that charm as often as they frustrate. You have to almost take it paragraph by paragraph, accepting that you’ll go from a chunk of text about Eva and Murphy in a motel to a mini-explainer of some of the steps involved in opening up your own motel, down to the price on each mattress if you order them in bulk. The structure of the prose matches the plot of the story, which is stylistically clever but doesn’t translate into seamless enjoyment.
And yet the way Thier structures his narrative also simulates the experience of being continually distracted with the great glut of information beaming into our heads via social media and 24-hour cable news, branching off from the storyline into small digressions of partially related or tangentially linked factoids, or rhetorical questions. Trying to read The World Is a Narrow Bridge for the plotline alone, then, mirrors the effects of trying to read or focus on anything for a prolonged period of time; we get distracted, we click on interesting hyperlinks that open another tab or window, meaning that we continually lose the thread and must click back to where we were hoping to go in the first place. Thier’s novel carries out this function in a literal way, as if acknowledging our short attention spans, knowing that we might be distracted by something while reading, so he might as well provide the distraction anyway before guiding us back to the point.