Beryl Bainbridge wasn’t shy about granting interviews in the final decade of a writing career that began in the 1940s. In 2004, she told the New Humanist about her late-onset writer’s block. She confided that following the publication of According to Queenie (2001), she had been unwilling to repeat herself with another historical novel. The trouble was, she could no longer find the distinctive voice that had animated her reputation-making social novels of the 1970s.
Accustomed to Bainbridge’s prolific output, eager fans across the globe waited for years, but read only rumours about an autobiographical new novel, to be set in the United States (a first for the author).
Throughout a struggle with lung cancer (she was a habitual chain-smoker), which ended with her death last summer, the five-time Booker Prize bridesmaid strived to reclaim that voice while writing one last book. She never finished The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, but left behind a draft and notes for editor Brendan King, who cobbled together the resulting novel (and added no other material).
Typically economical at 162 pages, Polka-Dot Dress could not be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Categorically bizarre and flecked with the macabre, it contains the inspired elements found in all of Bainbridge’s fiction in varying degrees: a lunatic and quarrelsome journey; difficult and eccentric characters prone to misunderstandings and demented outbursts; a depleted, non-nurturing environment in which violence often lurks; and a dark comic sensibility that flirts with seeming misanthropic.
A whimsical account of a meandering east-to-west road trip during the volatile summer of 1968, Polka-Dot Dress features perplexing, twentysomething Rose (“She was an empty box, only dust under the lid”), a British dental receptionist on a quest for Dr. Wheeler, a guru-like figure. Long ago, he’d helped Rose get over a disastrous childhood (another classic Bainbridge trope). Equally idiosyncratic, not to mention nervous and angry, is Rose’s driving companion, an American investor named Washington Harold. Harbouring a completely opposite perspective about Wheeler, Harold keeps his true mission – vengeance and murder – a secret.
He’s watchful and harsh as he drives with Rose (believing he is “dealing with a retard” ). Rose, drifting between attentiveness and reverie, formulates her own psychological profile of the man behind the wheel: “he was a soul immersed in darkness.” Their motto might be “Let’s agree to disagree.”
Driving from place to place in search of their on-the-go target, Rose and Harold squabble and kvetch as they encounter odd people (such as a manic woman who took part in an experiment involving massive LSD ingestion) and random and eerie events (they hit a dog in Utah, attend the funeral of a stranger in New York, witness a bank robbery in Illinois). When they finally get close to Wheeler in California, they stumble into one last and unexpected misadventure: the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
The pleasures of the episodic novel emerge from Bainbridge’s unerring sense of the never-ending queerness of both people and the world. As with a David Lynch film, the audience is taken on an awfully strange adventure; puzzling over what it’s really all about (or wondering if it’s truly about anything at all) is part of the allure.
As enjoyable as the novel can be, the flaws that come with the publication of an incomplete manuscript are difficult to miss. The conclusion fizzles out, and in parts Bainbridge repeats scenes that appeared in earlier novels. And while her sense of the ridiculous was nonpareil – funny and disturbing in equal measure – in Polka Dot Dress there is an occasional lack of polish that renders scenes abrupt and fragmentary, almost hallucinatory.
In that same 2004 interview, Bainbridge declared: “Had I not written my books I would probably have been in a mental home by now.” For her, writing was necessary, a surefire means of exorcism. With The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, Bainbridge’s many fans can be thankful once again for her fortuitous discovery of wordcraft, and thankful too for the firecracker personality that transformed a technical gift for words into memorable, one-of-a-kind fiction.