Madden’s London Bridge re-creation sings of ruin
by Rob Neufeld
“David Madden has written his masterpiece,” Ron Rash advances on the jacket of Madden’s new novel, “London Bridge in Plague and Fire.” I find myself stepping back from this frame to look at Madden’s life achievements, a fertile universe of imaginative adventures regarding which it’s hard to compare apples and pomegranates.
“London Bridge” is not only the most liberated of Madden’s journeys, it is also a fetid commentary on the state of lust and sin in the world that had preceded our era of intellect and spirit.
That it takes place in an otherworldly environment, a community of warrens perched above a rushing, commercial, odorous river in a time of violence, plague, disaster, and superstition, adds to the head trip.
Many characters—including Daryl Braintree, the 17th century poet-chronicler of London Bridge; Peter de Colechurch, 12th century architect of the first stone bridge at the crossing; and Lucien Redd, the 17th century villain forged by rape by soldiers during Cromwell’s revolution—are riveted by the stances of their own as well as the bridge’s shafts.
Madden’s fascination with the teeming life of the bridge before its demolition in 1831 flowers into a profusion of impressions, with plot taking a while to assert itself.
Braintree, Madden’s alter ego, comments after one journal entry, “Just before I go to bed I will enter in this diary my own thoughts, feelings, imaginings about the Bridge. No rules….My nocturnes are events. Are they poetry? Time will tell. Or my mistress, Musetta.”
Reading David Madden
Pausing on the landing of this paragraph in this review, I feel like John Cusack in “Being John Malkovich.” Except that entering Madden’s mind through his fiction is like entering a portal to many different minds.
In Madden’s previous novel, “Abducted by Circumstance,” we enter the mind of a woman in upstate New York as she witnesses what she thinks has been the abduction of a another woman, and, through an act of imagination, counsels the abductee on how to forestall and dissuade her attacker.
In his 1996 novel, “Sharpshooter,” Madden enters the mind of a haunted man looking back twenty-plus years to his service in the Confederate Army under General Longstreet.
“Cassandra Singing,” Madden’s 1969 novel, is a deeply Southern creation, featuring a restless young man and his sister, an over-imaginative, guitar-playing, 13-year-old, washed in the romance of literature as well as the blood of Christ; and confined by rheumatic fever.
The singing girl re-emerges in “London Bridge,” as Lucien has a supernatural vision of an altered version, “not just sad-sounding now, but distracted, mad, savage, almost screaming the song, like Csssandra in Troy.”
Madden’s roots in Southern literature go back to an upbringing in a poor part of Knoxville, and a lifelong reading of Southern greats, including William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Knoxville author James Agee, about whom he wrote the book, “Remembering James Agee.” Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” is the greatest of novels, Madden proposes in his study, “Touching the Web of Southern Novelists.”
A few years in the Merchant Marines and in the Army in the 1950s widened Madden’s scope, as did his growing library. His hunger to encompass non-Southern imaginations resulted in books about such various figures as James Cain, Wright Morris, and Nathaniel West.
We tumble through Madden’s productivity to end up at the door of Nonesuch House, the antiquarian bookstore on London Bridge in the garret of which Daryl creates “an echo chamber of communal voices.”
The mind within a mind format of “London Bridge” makes it Madden’s masterpiece in one sense for it is his attempt to represent the prodigious activity of his imagination. Madden’s background and type of imagination makes him a distinctive figure in literature.
Now, to the plot
The dates, committee reports, poems, and journal entries that populate the first 75 pages set up, first, the story of de Colechurch’s safeguarding of Archbishop’s Thomas á Becket’s murdered body; and then the 17th century story, involving Lucien’s diabolical role and that of Morgan Wood, a London Bridge youth who went to sea to work off his father’s debt and became closely acquainted with Lucien.
Lucien came on board in Surinam and occupied the hammock above Morgan’s. Morgan relates his memories of the Bridge to Lucien; and Lucien reveals, “You do know, do you not, that only the sacrifice of a female virgin child can appease whatever pagan gods still exert influence over the fate of Bridges everywhere?”
In Calcutta, a young seaman boards, speaking of plague spreading to Amsterdam. He’s thrown overboard.
Heads impaled on London Bridge’s gate remain there from pre-Restoration days.
Blythe, a 13-year old secret whorer, and her friend, Gilda, a virgin, frequently leave their fathers’ shops to frolic on the bridge, the clocks of their victimhood ticking. Doom is in the air.
All of the action comes to a head at once, after the fire of 1666, and you come away wondering, “Have I experienced the real thing? Do I now understand how people at the time of Puritanism and post-Renaissance excess could have become so horrible?”
Briantree notes that diarist John Evelyn wrote that London resembled Sodom.
Madden, making the character analogy, writes about Lucien’s latest intentions, “Like plague, like fire visiting the City, Lucien Redd had visited the mind and body of Morgan Wood, to sicken it, to incinerate it.”
Like Lucifer in John Milton’s 17th century classic, “Paradise Lost,” Lucien claims the spotlight. Madden’s excavation of the body and soul of London Bridge reveals a roiling co-dependence of good and evil.
London Bridge in Plague and Fire by David Madden (U. of Tenn. Press hardcover, 358 pages, 29.95)