Watson's Apology: thoughts on style

Watson's Apology: thoughts on style

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Beryl Bainbridge’s based-on-real-life novel Watson’s Apology, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Zack Handlen: Beryl Bainbridge died this summer at the age of 77, but when I first started reading her work in the middle of 2002, her oeuvre was essentially complete. Bainbridge wrote 18 novels, plus two collections of short fiction and four non-fiction books; her final novel, According To Queeney, was published in 2001. I'm sure she had her reasons for leaving off then. According to Wikipedia, she hadn't entirely given up on fiction (there was a novel, Dear Brutus, that she apparently decided to leave unfinished, as well as a short story she provided for a collection in 2009), but there's something so appropriate about her retiring early that I prefer to overlook these outliers. The main source of Bainbridge's appeal, for me, at least, is her talent for shearing down to the bone. All her novels are short, lean, and to the point, even if sometimes that point seems deliberately obscured. And did I mention bitter? Maybe the reason the books are so short is that no one can imagine wanting to live in Bainbridge's worlds for long. 

Watson's Apology is a murder mystery, I think, although the mystery isn't about the identity of the killer. It's based on the real-life murder of Anne Watson by her husband of nearly three decades, the Reverend John Shelby Watson, and the plot, if the book can be said to have a traditional plot, is more about understanding the circumstances of the crime than it is about solving anything. The traditional mystery is all about putting everything into proper context, giving a socially disruptive act a conclusion that returns the status to its proper quo. Nothing like that happens here. Watson and his wife meet (or rather re-meet), marry, and spend 20-some years together, growing increasingly apart as their lives fail to yield the promises they'd hoped for. Then Watson bludgeons Anne, halfheartedly attempts suicide, gets arrested, goes to court, and spends the rest of his life in prison, with a minimum of external drama. The basic needs of society have been met, in that the criminal is punished and the crime ostensibly avenged, but there's no catharsis from that punishment. Bainbridge's novels often read like horror stories that operate on Steve Martin's principle for comedy: constant build, but no real release.

We'll get to the murder later in the week. For this first entry, I wanted to take some time to talk about Apology's structure and style. I said Bainbridge liked to keep things short, and I was curious how you all responded to the brevity; there are references to characters and incidents throughout the novel that receive only passing explanation, and the book requires careful attention. (I don't know much about this particular period of history, and I wonder if someone more versed in the era can comment on any references here—there are names dropped that seem like they're probably important, but they pass so quickly, it's easy to miss them.) The prose is elegant, even if the subject isn't, which is one of the reasons I find Bainbridge's work so satisfying. Each word is calculated to achieve maximum effect. (As a writer, I tend to take more to the "spray and pray" approach.) There are also the selections of incident that comprise the narrative. This isn't a straight-up biography of the couple so much as a series of snapshots, and she leaves it to us to decide why these particular snapshots were selected. The narration is third-person omniscient, but there's never any sense of hand-holding. The murder itself happens off-page. The first time I read the novel, I thought I'd missed something, and this time, even knowing what to expect, the moment itself caught me off guard.

So, thoughts?

Leonard Pierce:  The style of Watson's Apology was, for me, the least interesting thing about it—which, strangely enough, I mean as a compliment.  I'm usually all about a flashy prose style, which Bainbridge definitely does not have. (I actually ended up reading According To Queeney over the last month as well.)  But she has a talent for picking exactly the style her stories require. This is a short, nasty novel of a marriage that never should have happened, and to a lesser extent, a commentary on, if not condemnation of, Victorian mores. As such, Bainbridge picked a very simple, basic, unimpressive stylistic approach for much of the book: She tells it in the story of a Victorian novel, a blend of "woman's story" and penny dreadful. It does nothing to call attention to itself or overwhelm with its cleverness—and that's just as it should be. It perfectly matches the tone of the story.

The other characters often barely seem to register, which, I think, is a function of reflecting the perspective of the main characters. So self-centered and internally focused are they that other people are more or less props in their internal narratives. Watson is a paranoid egoist with a persecution complex; even as he rots in prison, he dismisses the one person who's tried to help him as not too bright. Anne is so immersed in her own victimization that everyone, from her husband to her family, exist merely to disappoint and burden her. A few characters (I'm thinking especially of Fred, and to a lesser extent, the servant girl) are allowed to have lively scenes, but even told from an omniscient narrator's perspective, Bainbridge lets the selfishness of Watson and his wife dominate the story.

It's an unspectacular approach, but a perfectly appropriate one. Getting stylistically flashy would only get in the way of the story Bainbridge is trying to tell, which is about a relationship that started out sour and turned into poison.  The straightforward Victorian approach serves that narrative well, and even in the rare moments of humor (like, for instance, the drunken witness at their wedding), the laughs come naturally out of the rhythm of the story without needing a lampshade hung on them.  Bainbridge does manage to pull off some interesting storytelling tricks; one of the things I liked about it is the way we frequently see an incident differently from Watson and Anne's separate perspectives without any actual break in the narrative.

The one stylistic element that had me guessing was the front and back matter, where Bainbridge abandons the straightforward narrative and tells the story in a modern fashion, with epistolary chapters, court documents, and so on. Since it mentions in the introduction that she presents these documents mostly untouched, I wondered how much was actual writing (that is, Bainbridge's own invention) and how much was just selective editing.  I didn't dislike it, despite how different it was from the rest of the book; it just made me curious about how much liberties she took in these sections. 

Donna Bowman: As an unabashed fan of Victorian novels and their prose styles, I fell into Bainbridge's narrative voice with ease—even with gratitude. What intrigued me was what that seemingly straightforward voice was hiding. Zack mentioned it above: the propensity to skip around; the unannounced, often mid-paragraph shifts in point of view; the matter-of-fact tone that pretends to tell us everything we need to know about the moment at hand, but often ends up leaving out most of what we crave.

Maybe the key to the style of Watson's Apology is in the beginning and ending sections, which contrast so strongly with the body of the book—Bainbridge's extrapolation of the marriage's long and rocky history between inauguration and demise—and with each other.  I was utterly charmed and yet, of course, horrified by Watson's letters at the outset. It was clear from that one-sided correspondence that this was a marriage built on pure imagination and lopsided desperation. The too-rapid intimacy of the letters; their already alarming miscommunications, demands, and protests; their insistance on a speedy, perfunctory courtship—all these would spark the imagination of a novelist even if encountered out of the context of an eventual murder. Bainbridge decides to fill in the blanks much as the letters both do and fail to do. In that sense, the novel seems to spring both from the desire to know what kind of marriage launched from such an inauspicious beginning and headed toward such an ignominious end, and from the decision to honor the essential unknowability of the situation, as already represented in these odd letters.

And then there are the trial transcripts—although not transcripts as we know them today, but unbroken stream-of-consciousness narration of what the witnesses related, colored with (it seems) the interpretation of the court reporter, since direct quotes are rare. They are matter-of-fact but too tight and comprehensive, aren't they? They presume that people's movements can be thoroughly accounted for, that when someone picks up an object or calls a doctor, that someone has but one motive that can be easily and thoroughly delineated. And so the mystery that remains from this section is whether the various interpretations there on display, from the doctor to the experts to the friends to the solicitors, are simply irresolvable alternative translations of the events and behavior witnessed, like the debate in the newspaper letter columns over the proper translation of Watson's strange Latin phrase. At this point, what we learned in the middle section of the novel takes on a different cast. It's no longer stations along life's way, but a bewildering piece of abstract art, where figures change shape depending on what relationships you choose to see as central and peripheral.

Rowan Kaiser: This book is a little bit outside of my normal reading habits, so it took me some time to really get into it. The form caught my attention before anything else. The point-of-view switching that Zack mentioned seemed like a clever throwback to Victorian-era writing styles, and served the purpose of getting me to read on to see, at the very least, how far Bainbridge would go with the conceit.

I got more invested in the characters as the book progressed, and I think the form influenced that as well. Because of the constant jumps in time in the first half of the book, the reader has to do a great deal of filling in the blanks of the Watsons' marriage. This mental closure encouraged me to see the flaws in every long-term relationship I've had, read about, or seen, and project them onto the Watsons. Their failing marriage wasn't just their failed relationship, it was all of the failed relationships I know about. I think this was a major asset for the book, as it made Mr. Watson more sympathetic, although it may have also made Anne more unsympathetic than necessary.

Yet the book switches form again, first subtly around the time of the murder, and then overtly at the time of the trial. When the trial started and Bainbridge started printing the primary sources directly, I initially went back to my initial mindset that the book could be viewed as an authorial thought exercise. However, once the testimony started, I started to think that it wasn't entirely about how clever the author was in creating a plausible fiction around a real-life trial, but instead it was about how clever I could be in figuring out the author's game.

We didn't really see Watson's behavior in the month leading up to the murder as odd, because he was our primary POV character, but we did get glimpses of it, such as when his apparently disastrous substitute-curating was mentioned. In the fiction, he easily has an explanation for why it didn't work out, without really saying how it didn't work. But in the testimony of Reverend Collett Baugh, we see just how out-of-sorts the seemingly competent Watson was. This made the source documents far more interesting to read, and, I think, retroactively made much of the previous novel more interesting as well.

Also, did the Latin arguments in the newspaper letter section strike anyone else as an amusing foreshadowing of Internet message boards? I can just see—I have seen—I have participated in—comment threads about something serious descending into the equivalent of pedantic arguments about proper Latin translation.

Ellen Wernecke: I like what you said, Zack, about how Bainbridge calculates her work for maximum effect. I’ve been reading a lot of longer novels recently, and to switch from works like Adam Levin’s The Instructions (which I liked a lot) to Watson’s Apology is to marvel at the latter’s efficiency. The utility at work isn’t even evident at first, which makes its neat leaps and advances in time, pulled together by the style like a drawstring through cloth, models of neatness and precision. Even the backgrounding of the much-anticipated murder, at first noticeable in its absence, provides necessary counterweight to the trial testimony, withholding the horror from us right away in order to deliver it to us later.

I didn’t think of the book so much as a series of snapshots as two complementing novellas—the first comprising the Watsons’ meeting up to Anne’s death, and the second collecting the court documents, testimony, and all the related newspaper coverage, which is something I really liked about this book. (Although the presence of the letters at the beginning and the comments throughout the narrative muddle this characterization somewhat.) Like Leonard, I also wondered how much of that material belonged to the primary source body and how much Bainbridge embellished to force those documents to cohere with her vision of the doomed couple and their internal narratives of the marriage.

It wouldn’t surprise me either way, because while both genres included in the book contribute to Bainbridge’s portrait of the marriage, they don’t cohere exactly. Like two sides of a puzzle that’s missing a few pieces, the Watsons are presented with just enough tantalizing gaps to allow us to crack them open as two people whose union should never have been formed. Donna saw the seeds of the Watsons’ undoing in the first flurry of letters, but if I hadn’t read the back of the book, I wouldn’t have anticipated in that beginning, however disjointed it was, that this would end in a murder. (This is why back-of-the-book copy ought to be banned, to save people like me, who can’t help reading it.) Maybe I approached it with too much of a modern lens, to see those first fumblings as the opening to something instead of the foundation for catastrophe. That switch from epistolary to narrative, and back again, makes us less sure of the case under review and—coupled with Watson’s letter, intended to be found after his attempted suicide—seeds doubt into his motives before the murder that comes to define him in the public eye.

Todd VanDerWerff: I'll be honest here: This book nearly lost me when it switched from the carefully constructed story of how the Watsons fell apart so spectacularly and became something like a ripped-from-the-headlines courtroom drama for the 1800s. I greatly enjoyed the first three parts, where the narrative voice seemed to lose its grasp on telling the story coherently even as John Watson was losing his grip on his marital situation. (I have my doubts that Watson actually has a moment of "insanity," but I assume we'll talk about that and the class-based notions of why he did what he did that surround the character a little later in the week.) I loved how the novel neatly elided the actual murder, which I knew was coming, like Ellen, but didn't mind having buried between sentences like it was. I loved some of the narrative trickery, like many of the rest of you. But I just didn't want to go with Bainbridge when she shifted into those court documents, no matter how edited. They seemed overly obsessive in a way I couldn't make peace with.

Look at this another way. One of the best things about the book's first two-thirds is that they leave out so much detail, only choosing the moments that will exactly express what Bainbridge wants to say about these two people and the marriage that hollowed both of them out. Donna may see hints of what's to come in that initial correspondence, but I didn't. The opening section could practically be read as a romantic comedy in some places, if one really wanted to, and I didn't see a great deal of foreshadowing. Bainbridge follows her characters down into despair, yes, but she does so through very carefully chosen moments, images, and incidents.

By the time we get to the court stuff, the book now suffers from an inclusion of too much detail. I think I know what Bainbridge is getting at here (again, this will likely be appropriate later in the week, but I think she's trying to show us how little anyone was focusing on the "right stuff," such as it was). That doesn't mean that reading any of this made the rest of the novel snap into place for me in a way that would explain the Watsons in greater depth. Obviously, trials have a tendency to reduce incidents to a bunch of cause-and-effect moments, and Bainbridge is trying to paint a world where nothing so simple as that can happen. (Like Leonard, I loved how the novel portrayed the same incident from very, very different viewpoints in the space of a few paragraphs.) These long monologues, often from characters who had next to nothing to do with the narrative up until this point, came to hamper my enjoyment of the book. The coda at the end pulled it together for me, and I'm still heartily recommending this one to most people I know who enjoy reading, but I'll admit the trial portion was a slog for me, in a way I think Bainbridge intended, but not in a way that made me appreciate her intentions more.

Tasha Robinson: I’m with Todd, I’m afraid, and I’ll take it a little further: I could not make myself pay attention to the lengthy courtroom transcripts, with their breathless, broken phrases, endless repetitions on a theme, and headachey, unvaried flow. Eventually, I started skimming. I’m afraid of what I might have lost in those pages, particularly about how other people saw the Watsons. One of my favorite moments in the book, cheap shot though it is, comes when the maid silently clucks to herself about how Anne is clearly lower-class than her husband, based on their relative behavior. Such an observation is an easy irony, and I’m not entirely sure Bainbridge benefits from stepping outside of the Watsons’ hermetically sealed, suffocating point of view, which brings across the isolating pressure and pain they both felt in their doomed union. But even so, the maid’s observation is such an elegant, simple summary of the point they’d reached as people.

Overall, the book’s shifting style bothered me more than it intrigued me. I deeply enjoyed the epistolary segment at the beginning, both for the formal style of Victorian letter-writing and for how clearly and painfully those letters revealed the character of the writers. And I found Bainbridge’s prose style accessible and functional, but a little disturbing in her lurching, erratic POV, and the leaps in time that seemed to elide over some of the most interesting parts of the story—the parts during which the Watsons’ relationship deteriorated cataclysmically. Given how wildly they both lurch around emotionally during that first meeting, hating each other and loving each other, being disappointed and emotionally overwhelmed in sudden sharp turns—I can’t help but wonder how things codified over the years into the place we’ve reached by the point Watson makes his (to me, unfortunately understandable) decision. I feel like we see the results of their marital collapse, but not the causes, save to the degree that those causes were rooted in their characters from the beginning.

But apart from the to-me-unreadable court segments, my biggest problem with the book’s style was the way we start with equal mental access to both participants, but move sharply away from Anne’s, until she ceases to be a character, and becomes only an obstacle. Is she insane by the end? Her actions certainly are. Is she inhuman? She certainly seems to be. If there’s any cogency left to her, we aren’t permitted to know it. And that makes this a one-sided contest, and an unsatisfying one to me. I understand what Bainbridge was getting at, in trying to explain the inexplicable and illuminate the darkness, but given that she was going to be hypothesizing anyway, why not hypothesize about what was going on in the victim’s head as well as the murderer’s? Ultimately, as others said, this book read like a writing exercise to me, but not a fully formed novel. It’s a series of segments which don’t entirely properly assemble into a whole.