ON BOOKS: In Aaron Thier’s ‘The World is a Narrow Bridge’ the fate of humanity hangs in the balanceMore Info
The World is a Narrow Bridge
By Aaron Thier
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018
Great Barrington — For all intents and purposes, Aaron Thier writes fiction; that said, his whole life makes it into the pages of his novels. “You are responsible in a different way,” he jokes. “Your whole life is in there, but it’s the way you have experienced the life rather than somebody just watching you go through the motions,” he explains. His new book, The World is a Narrow Bridge, tells the story of a young Miami couple — Murphy and Eva — who have almost decided to have a baby when Yahweh, the Old Testament God, appears to Eva and makes an unwelcome demand: He wants her to be his prophet. He also wants her to manage his social media presence. Yahweh sends the two on a wild road trip across the country, making incomprehensible demands and mandating arcane rituals as they go. At odds with their mission, but helpless to disobey, Murphy and Eva search their surroundings for signs of a future in which they can have faith.
Thier doesn’t fret about much; rather he ponders everything deeply. For example: How does one’s awareness of the fact of death — or apprehension about death — affect one’s experience of the moment? The author, who thinks of literature as a way of describing how if feels to be a human being, grew up in Williamstown and has been a resident of Great Barrington for the past two and a half years. I was lucky enough to catch up with Their — over a double espresso chased by soda water — on the eve of his summer book tour which kicks off Monday, July 9th in Lenox; there, he will appear with his wife, poet Sarah Trudgeon, who will read from her new chapbook entitled, The Plot Against the Baby (Dancing Girl Press). Thier, unlike his protagonists, has “ended up being sort of glad that I have small children at this terrible time. Otherwise, what else would I be doing? I would finish my work by noon and I’d be looking at Twitter or something, ruining my soul.”
HVS: What kind of road trip landed you in the Berkshires?
AT: My wife got pregnant and I kind of lost my mind as soon as that happened. I just couldn’t imagine having a kid who had a different kind of childhood than I had — because my childhood was great here in the Berkshires. I guess it felt inevitable, as soon as I realized I wanted to come home. I felt really bad about it — [Sarah] was having such a good time [in Miami]. Right after we left, Zika happened anyway, so we would have had to leave. So all that heartache was for nothing. It’s my home. So even if I don’t like it, exactly, more than I like any other place, it’s just the place where I belong; where I feel least out of place, in a way. It isn’t that I particularly like New England, it’s just that I am a New Englander and this is where I belong — and perhaps that is the New England feeling: this isn’t the best place, but it’s my place.
HVS: What was the genesis of your idea for this book?
AT: We were living in Miami and I started writing a novel about all the retired U.S. presidents living together in a condominium building in Florida, and that book turned into this book very smoothly. This book is a book about a young couple chased across the country by the Old Testament God. [My wife] still calls it the presidents book, and it’s impossible to describe what it is about it that’s exactly the same — so I can’t describe it. It’s something like: I’m always interested in how did we get here and how can we accept the world we have to live in? Yahweh, the God of this book, is sort of the literary character from the Old Testament — who’s a really vicious character, like a villain, but the idea that that villain is in charge of the whole world has great explanatory power. I think of the bible as a really good evocation of what it feels like to be a human being. Its arbitrary cruelty just comes zinging through, and messes you up, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s not much good to complain about it — although you do. I must have been thinking about how America got so screwed up, and how can we accept that? Throughout the whole thing I was thinking, How can you welcome a child into the world knowing what the world is?It started as knowing what America is, then Yahweh kind of made its entrance and it became this bigger thing, and it became this larger question of Knowing that human existence involves so much pain, how can you voluntarily subject an innocent person to all that pain?The road trip was a natural fit — you’re out there, moving around — it’s a much bigger country than Judea so you have to drive.
HVS: You touch on big topics like theology and fate, potentially polarizing topics for some “secular humanists;” what lead to your decision to challenge readers in this way?
AT: I think I have an instinct to try and shift people out of their normal way of thinking, and that partly comes from the great impatience with what everyone is doing and thinking right now — I immediately lose patience with the conventional way of doing things. I like to skew whatever it is in that direction so it – hopefully — pushes people to think about whatever they are thinking about in a different way. In this book there is a larger idea about thinking about all of the different ways of explaining why the world is the way it is. Theology in the book is on the same plane as particle physics — the explanations that both ways of thinking generate are kind of the same to me. So God created the world in seven days, God has all these arbitrary rules; you follow them, you don’t follow them, something terrible might happen to you. There’s no way of knowing. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter that you’re certain God created the world in seven days. When I was writing the book, they had discovered gravity waves — a perturbation in the fabric of space time — and they have this incredibly sophisticated instrument to detect this thing that Einstein had proposed years and years ago. And I remember being really excited when they detected it. And then after a few days thinking, What does it matter?It doesn’t change anything at all in my experience of the world, as far as I know. Maybe it does. But the experience of being a person is just the experience of encountering all these different ways of explaining the experience of being a person — and incorporating these different explanations into your own understanding of your experience — and it all gets mashed together and becomes this half-meaningless, half-deeply meaningful stew of concepts. And it doesn’t really matter what’s true, I guess.
HVS: You place seemingly disparate entities — like Yahweh and social media — on the same page; how does this absurdity stimulate real conversations?
AT: You just can’t escape anything. All this discordant junk is just bombarding us at all times, and we’re somehow supposed to synthesize that and produce some sort of coherent worldview and get through the day. We have to accept all this garbage — media trash — along with the deep problems of human existence that we’re already grappling with. The density of discordant information is so great — and it really is greater [than it used to be]. Usually I’m suspicious of people who talk about modern life or contemporary life being so different — but it really is different now. I have this phone in my pocket that I compulsively check even though I think all the time about how it does damage to my psyche and my spirit. How is it possible to live a happy life given that there is all this stuff coming at us all the time that seems designed to make us unhappy?
HVS: What can you divulge about the metaphor in your novel’s title without spoiling the read?
AT: That comes from the election. I went to synagogue, for the first time in years and years, as I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted some other thing. It was the week after the election, there were a lot of people there, and everyone was there for the same reason. This is a Hebrew sort of proverb set to music — and I grew up going to Hebrew school singing the Hebrew but never understanding what it meant. The rabbi had us chant it in English, that day, and for the next sort of month or so I just repeated it to myself constantly: The world is a narrow bridge, the most important thing is not to be afraid.And I don’t feel so confident that I can say what it is about it that is so comforting, or what it means, it is what it sounds like. Here we are in this moment; that’s what we have. You can worry, like I was worrying at the time — that I had a neon sign above my head that said, “Jew, Jew, Jew” and Donald Trump was president and neo-Nazis were marching in the streets of these southern cities — and I don’t know what will happen. Maybe it will be fine. There’s nothing you can do in that moment, when you’re sitting there in synagogue chanting.”
HVS: What is your daily practice with regard to writing?
AT: I have a toddler so it’s like panic all the time, just like there’s a siren going off all the time. Sometimes I can sort of like, in a cartoon, you get into the room and you slam the door and you have your back up against it. And then you type frantically for a little while and then there’s screaming happening outside the door. I think ideally — before we had a baby — and, knock on wood at some future date, I would wake up at dawn and write for 2 ½ or 3 hours. And then exercise, and do some other thinking about it — not writing — but note-taking or research, and then I put it away — and this is ideally — by about noon and not think about it again until the next morning.
HVS: In an increasingly fractured world, what kind of hope can we pass onto the next generation?
AT: I remember when the election happened, [my son] Sid was eight months old, and for a few days or weeks I felt very sad for him. Living in the ‘90s, everything was so safe here, you know? When I was a kid in Williamstown — obviously a very skewed way of understanding what the world was like — even so, there was a kind of certainty that Sid is not going to grow up with. But after a little while, I started to realize that Sid doesn’t live in this world; he lives in the future. He’s going to inherit and inhabit a totally different world and, in some ways, that world seems to me radically impoverished. And it is, in lots of ways. But it’s also, in some ways, just the world; it’s still this unsatisfactory experience in which there are lots of opportunities for joy.
Aaron Thier is the author of the novelsMr. Eternity, a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and The Ghost Apple, a semifinalist for the Thurber Prize. A contributor to the Nation and a graduate of Yale University and the MFA program at the University of Florida, Thier received a 2016 NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing. He will read from his new book on Monday, July 9th at 5:30 p.m. at The Bookstore in Lenox. For more information, contact the Bookstore at 413-637-3390.