About Chris F. Westbury’s debut novel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, there is good news and bad. The bad news is that it is not quite the comic novel that its jacket copy promises. Like many novels recognizably working in the comic mode, it will answer to charming, whimsical, zany, but comic would be pushing it; some of its more outrageous conceits and set pieces are just this side of grating. The good news is that, unlike many novels that fall short of their aims in the comedy department, it succeeds in other ways. Westbury, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Alberta (Edmonton), has plenty to say about art and attention, about the line between sanity and mental illness, and about the nature of a well-lived life.
If the book is not altogether funny, it is at least—in keeping with its title, which is taken from Marcel Duchamp’s famous 109 1/4” x 70” x 3 3/8” assemblage of “oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels”—Dadaistic. Isaac, our narrator, is the orphaned heir of a family fortune, and in group therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder exacerbated by his mother’s death from cancer. Greg, Isaac’s fellow therapy patient and best friend, suffers from the same mysophobia and compulsive hand washing that Isaac does; the wrinkle in Greg’s pathology is a debilitating preoccupation with spoons and their aesthetic properties. With his art history degree and manuscript-in-permanent-progress, Greg is also obsessed, in a slightly more socially acceptable way, with Duchamp.
Following his mother’s death, Isaac resists leaving his home in Medford, Massachusetts, for anything but therapy, but Greg persuades him to visit museums—the ideal environment for someone who can focus his attention for long periods of time but is terrified to touch anything. It is at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum that Isaac discovers not only an ivory carving of Abraham’s offering of his son—named Isaac—but also the beautiful Kelly, a graduate student of Women’s Studies in Religion, who is writing her dissertation on Sarah in representations of the same biblical story. At this point Isaac, inordinately fond of Kelly’s “sawdust and lemon” perfume, resembles no character in literature so much as the reclusive, attenuated aesthete Des Esseintes from J.-K. Huysmans’s Against Nature.
Isaac’s parallel interest in Duchamp grows into a folie à deux with Greg. He decides to use some of his inheritance to track down a chocolate grinder like the one in The Bride Stripped Bare: “The three grinding drums are arrayed in thirds on a short round table, which oddly has feet in the style of Louis Quinze.” Greg knows a guy in Philadelphia who can create a flawless reproduction for the right price, but both Isaac and Greg are too neurotic to travel (“Greg presented me with a thick folder of documentation about the Greyhound passenger in Canada whose head had been chopped off in the bus by another passenger”). They recruit Kelly to drive them to Philadelphia, home of The Bride Stripped Bare, in a sterilized rental Winnebago.
Were this not yet an adequate foray into absurdism, it comes to pass that Kelly will not drive, nor Isaac and Greg agree to be driven, until the trio arrives at a suitable contract. The result, which puts a Van Halen concert rider to shame, contains stipulations that reflect, on the one hand, Greg and Isaac’s neuroses and, on the other, Kelly’s attempt to parody or shame the two young men into something like self-awareness. Kelly, for instance, demands that “one of [them] had to pop a chocolate truffle from a specific Boston chocolaterie into [her] mouth every 90 minutes while she [drives].” Greg insists that the RV “be oriented due north in a Walmart parking lot at night.” Isaac remarks that “it seemed like a wash when it came to the insanity of the requirements.”
The major objections that The Bride Stripped Bare invites are that it is too contrived and that it is too derivative. Isaac may have brought Des Esseintes to mind, but once he has set out on a road trip with a possible love interest the reader is thinking of As Good as It Gets, which supplied the story arc if not the specifics or the themes of this book. There is also the matter of Kelly, a character who may irritate a public that has wearied of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Yet, over these objections, there is a case to be made that Westbury, who is more interested in concepts than in characters, is drawing attention at every turn to his own artifice, to underscore his main point about art.
And what might that point be? Westbury repeatedly quotes Duchamp’s assertion that a work of art is a “delay,” that is, an occasion to arrest and fix one’s attention on a single object or experience. It is this argument that allows Isaac to join Greg in the belief that a spoon, as much as Duchamp’s notorious urinal, can function as a work of art. (A urinal, in homage to Duchamp and R. Mutt, attempts to function as a source of humor in this book, with mixed results.) It is this argument that Kelly makes, with much greater elegance, when explaining the term ishta-deva:
It means “cherished divinity.” Literally. But it refers to whatever is a chosen reminder of the Divine. . . . In Hinduism, representations of the divine are really just there to entertain you, until you come to focus your attention on that aspect of God that can never be represented, which is the true divinity.
The Bride Stripped Bare is in many ways a slight book, a Dadaistic entertainment, but it is also, in keeping with Westbury’s intentions, a Duchampian one. On his website, Westbury explains “Why Duchamp Was Not a Dadaist”: “Duchamp . . . did not embrace the ‘pure meaninglessness’ of Dada. Dada was intended make thinking irrelevant by making it impossible. Duchamp’s work is intended to make the spectator think.” Whether or not this book succeeds is up to the reader. Westbury is at times too glib about the gulf that separates real mental illness from heightened mental activity. The processes of death and grieving, too, can seem out of place in a book so willfully goofy, so shot through with puns and anagrams and surrealist games. At its best, though, Westbury’s debut is a call to pay attention, and a reminder of the rewards of patience and open eyes.