Beryl Bainbridge’s Bobby Kennedy Novel
By WILLIAM BOYD
Published: September 9, 2011
On May 30, 1888, Anton Chekhov wrote exasperatedly to a friend, the newspaper editor A. S. Suvorin, complaining about the state of contemporary Russian literature, filled with its moral injunctions and its pious prescriptions for human behavior. The writer, he insisted “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness. . . . It’s time for writers, especially writers of real artistic worth, to realize . . . that in fact nothing can be understood in this world.” In a real sense, these phrases encapsulate the Chekhovian credo: nothing makes sense, mediocrity is the true demonic force, life is weird and vulgar, judgment is irrelevant. And to many writers, post-Chekhov, this point of view has appeared very attractive. In English literature since World War II, two writers in particular have made this take on life and the human predicament their personal forte — Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. Bainbridge, who died last year, of cancer, at the age of 77, pushed this attitude of amused, quietistic indifference to its ultimate level. Her succession of short novels (17 in all) demonstrates a beguiling relish in people’s fundamental opacity, eccentricity and inability to conform, however hard they may happen to be trying.
Bainbridge’s work can be divided into two broad types. The early novels (“Harriet Said,” “The Bottle Factory Outing,” “Injury Time”) were almost “kitchen-sink” in the sense that they reflected a known humdrum world often closely related to the author’s own autobiography. Later in her career, she began to use historical events and real people (“The Birthday Boys,” “Every Man for Himself,” “Master Georgie”) as spurs to her creative imagination. But whether she was writing about Adolf Hitler or the Titanic or Scott’s expedition to Antarctica, what colors and defines the world of Bainbridge’s novels is this same sense and relish of the absurd, the perverse and the inexplicable. People are very odd, her fiction repeatedly tells us; they behave in the strangest ways, and they are psychologically messed up to a degree that they — and we — can barely surmise.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that this posthumous, incomplete novel, “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress,” brings together the two strands of Bainbridge’s fiction and knits them into a perplexing, dark narrative that — hindsight affording insight — almost seems to prefigure Bainbridge’s death. The novel is set in 1968 and concerns the journey of Rose, an Englishwoman in her late 20s, who travels to the United States and there, with the help of a friend of a friend called Harold, embarks on a quest to find a man, a certain Dr. Wheeler. Also an American, Wheeler was in England during Rose’s youth and was instrumental in saving her from her self-destructive instincts. Wheeler provided her with a philosophy that she could live by and with. And now — for reasons that are never fully clear — she wants to find him again.
Harold knows Wheeler too. They were friends until Wheeler had an affair with Harold’s promiscuous wife, Dollie, and Harold is keen to meet him again. But his motives are more sinister, and he has armed himself with a revolver. So Rose and Harold set off in Harold’s camper van on a journey across the country in pursuit of the elusive Dr. Wheeler. They travel from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., then up to the Canadian border, finally heading west toward Los Angeles, Dr. Wheeler always one step ahead of them. On the way, they stay with friends of Harold — all misfits and cranks in some way — or else park in campsites or stay in shabby motels. They are the most unlikely couple — a kind of neurotic, low-rent Humbert Humbert with his grubby, diffident Lolita — and, this being a Bainbridge novel, the journey is often very funny.
Harold is irritated by Rose and her smoking habit; she doesn’t wash enough; she seems remarkably incurious about the landscapes she’s passing through. Rose finds Harold boring and fastidious, intently spraying the camper van with insect repellent. No one has a sharper eye than Bainbridge for human foibles and pretensions; no one better understands importunate human needs and the urgent desire to assuage them, whether it’s a stolen cigarette in a car park or soulless sex in a hotel bedroom.
What makes this novel different from the ones that have gone before is its darkness. The novel is suffused with death — the famous assassinations that marked the 1960s, of J.F.K. and Martin Luther King Jr., and Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald — but also the deaths encountered as the journey progresses. A funeral for a young man killed in Vietnam, a dog run over, a pervert stabbed by his victim: the body count is bleak and impossible to ignore. And because this is Bainbridge’s last novel, written during what she knew was a fatal illness, one wonders — legitimately — if her own prospective demise prompted these somber meditations.
Various religious options are explored. Rose attends a funeral; she sits in on a theosophist meeting; she prays from time to time. But the consolation is meager and the conviction erratic. Dr. Wheeler’s harsh judgment on the human condition is the one that obsesses her: “If you want a compass to guide you through life, you have to accustom yourself to looking upon the world as a penal colony. If you abide by this you’ll stop regarding disagreeable incidents, sufferings, worries and miseries as anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, you’ll realize that everything is as it should be; each of us pays the penalty of existence in our own peculiar way.” This is Chekhov pushed to the edge of nihilism.
As Rose and Harold journey through a turbulent country riven with race hatred and riots, they pick up Dr. Wheeler’s trail. He is part of the entourage around Robert Kennedy, who is running for the presidential nomination. It becomes clear that the eventual rendezvous will take place at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, site of the novel’s final, famous death. But we never reach that moment, since Bainbridge left the novel unfinished.
Rose, wearing a polka dot dress to impress Dr. Wheeler, is seen standing on a chair beside Sirhan Sirhan listening to Bobby Kennedy. We can only guess at what might have happened next. The novel’s coda takes the form of a reproduction of an actual newspaper report of a witness to the Kennedy assassination who recalled seeing a girl in a polka dot dress run from the hotel claiming that “we shot Senator Kennedy.”
Curiously, its incompleteness doesn’t diminish this short, haunting novel. History tells us what really happened next, and Rose and Harold’s fictional part in it can be imagined in any number of ways. The novel functions in the same way as Camus’s “Étranger” or Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" (it could easily be entitled “Looking for Dr. Wheeler”). The unanswered questions add to its mystery and strange power.
I didn’t know Beryl Bainbridge well, but our paths crossed from time to time. I last saw her at an authors’ party hosted by a major London bookshop. As I left, I bumped into Beryl, who had gone outside to smoke a cigarette. We chatted and she said, dryly, “I don’t really enjoy these occasions, do you?” I admitted I didn’t. “But,” she added, “I suppose we have to make an effort.” We said goodbye, Beryl trod on her cigarette, smiled and went back in to the party.
William Boyd’s new novel, “Waiting for Sunrise,” will be published next spring.