Resolving Dualisms in David Bergen’s
Sitting Opposite My Brother
Abstract: The short stories in David Bergen’s first book of fiction Sitting Opposite My Brother tend to offer similar sets of characters, narratives and resolutions. The stories often juxtapose male characters of opposite spiritual conditions: one being a spiritual skeptic, the other an enthusiastic believer. The ironist ?wins,? often thanks to a kind of grace offered to him by a generous woman. Bergen redefines the Anabaptist archetype of the martyr and emphasizes the spiritual quest rather than its certain attainment.
The three novels written by David Bergen’A Year of Lesser (1996), See the Child (1999), The Case of Lena S. (2002)?have fulfilled the promise shown by his first published work, the book of short stories Sitting Opposite My Brother (1993). However, in their surface details the novels increasingly move away from the religious, and specifically Mennonite, themes and subject matter that are present, even if muted, in Sitting Opposite My Brother. One reason, Bergen says, is that ?big publishing houses dislike religious themes.? Another is that he is ?interested in widening [his] scope, in exploring characters who do not necessarily come from Mennonite stock? (although even Lena S. does).
But in the same way that critics find in Rudy Wiebe’s later novels about Canadian Indians some of the same ideas found in his early novels about Mennonites, so, I think, Bergen’s later novels are in obvious continuity with the characters and situations he depicts in Sitting Opposite My Brother. Although I will not analyze that continuity in this essay, I will identify the structures, characters and ideas in Sitting Opposite My Brother that suggest the base from which Bergen continues to write.
In one sense, the consistency of elements from story to story is perhaps the greatest weakness of Sitting Opposite My Brother’in fact, it is often difficult to distinguish a character in one story from a character in another story. The recurring structures and ideas, however, become an index to the persistent concerns of Bergen and his characters. These repeated elements include juxtaposed ?opposite? characters, women as savior-figures and sexual fulfillment as a saving grace. In order to make sweeping generalizations that will illuminate other stories in the collection, I will focus especially on the three stories that hold special authority in the collection, thanks to their strategic placement in the series: the very first story ?The Bottom of the Glass,? as well as the title story ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? and ?Where You’re From,? which is linked to ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? by repeated characters, setting and issues.
The title of the book, Sitting Opposite My Brother, calls explicit attention to the dualism of characters, usually male, at the center of most of these stories. In the title story and its link, the literal brothers are Thomas and Tim; in the first story ?The Bottom of Glass? the figurative brothers are neighbors, Saul and Ted. The dualism that these pairs of men represent, however, is not quite that of ?flesh and spirit? that Daniel Born finds in Bergen’s first novel A Year of Lesser. Instead, they are dualisms of faith and enthusiasm as opposed to unbelief and despair. As June tells Thomas in ?Sitting Opposite My Brother’: ?Timothy’s so earnest . . . you’re such an infidel? (92). Indeed, Tim has been a missionary aviator to Southeast Asia, and the two stories depict him back in Canada in his brother’s household, at two different stages (both historical and spiritual) of his life. In ?The Bottom of the Glass? the narrator is gripped by despair over the death by drowning of his five-year-old son; his opposite is his neighbor Ted, in whose pool Daniel drowned and who has recently ?got religion? and begun attending Saul’s Mennonite church.
As with many characters in this book of stories, symbolic names emphasize the spiritual conditions of these men. ?Thomas,? of course, suggests the doubting disciple of Jesus, who required physical proof of Jesus? resurrection. His missionary brother ?Tim? is akin to Timothy, the faithful disciple of St. Paul on his missionary journeys. Both Thomas and Tim are sons of a minister father, the one son having lost the faith, the other having committed his life to spreading it. In ?The Bottom of the Glass? the unusual name of ?Saul? suggests the zealously doubting, unconverted Paul. The full name of Saul’s opposite, Ted, is ?Theodore,? which means ?lover of God.? Both Saul and his cross-story counterpart Thomas pursue occupations that require a distanced, objective approach to life: Saul is a ?reporter? and Thomas is a ?writer? (with ?no sense of purpose’) who tells ?family stories? that reveal ?profane and sacreligious things about our faith, our sins? (88). Saul, in critically observing Ted, asks, ?Why is it that believers can’t see irony’? (7). Saul and Thomas are first-person narrators of their stories, which lends authority to their skeptical points of view toward their enthusiastic, religious opposites.
Similar dualities of character are found in ?Hope,? where the rebellious teenager Kenny scorns his preacher pacifist father Arney; in ?Hey,? where Andy, a junior high math teacher, finds his rival in Len, a theologian; in ?Cousins,? where brother John was a conscientious objector and brother Abe was a tailgunner in the army; and in ?Light,? where oddly named Lot, a used book dealer, is the opposite of Pierre, who is perhaps ?the Rock? of a new enthusiastic but hedonistic faith. In ?The Fall? the genders switch a bit as Donald, the faithful one, opposes his faithless wife Candace over their bad-seed-like young daughter.
David Bergen easily accepts this analysis of the dualistic ground of his stories, saying:
In the stories I was exploring where I came from. And where I come from there is a dualism, a definite history of light and dark. The characters in the stories lean into the dark more than the light, and that may be my own nature coming through, or my sense of saying to my past: ?This is the way it truly is and all the lies I have been told cannot hide the fact that to obviate darkness is not a simple matter. It is not a question of believing or not believing. In other words, faith is an opiate, and I have been deceived.?
In these words he echoes Patrick Friesen, from a religious background similar to Bergen’s, who says: ?Mennos, as a church, are not flexible on spiritual matters. There is wrong, and there is right. Black and white. Not much room for grey.? Although Bergen and Friesen could be speaking on behalf of any writer coming from a conservative evangelical church community, Bergen’s dualism has its particular roots in his Mennonite Brethren tradition, which in the 1860s brought the enthusiasm of spiritual revival to some Russian Mennonites.
Of course, in placing dualisms in the foreground of his work Bergen flaunts the postmodern proscription of dualisms’nowadays scorned as ?binary oppositions? that reflect a ?Manichaean? view of life and lead to the embrace of hierarchical values. On the other hand, such dualisms belong naturally in classic short-story structure, which requires a sharply defined conflict capable of being resolved, to some degree, by the end of a short narrative. This clear-cut conflict creates a dynamic movement in Bergen’s stories and makes them compelling reading. If such dualisms persist also in Bergen’s novels, they do so in a less Manichaean form, since the sprawling form of the novel as genre allows for more alternative foils for the main character and his diverse options. In A Year of Lesser, for instance, Johnny Fehr can be considered in juxtaposition to at least five other men in the novel: his father, a suicide; Pastor Krahn, a conventional Mennonite pastor; Pastor Phil, a revivalist pastor; Michael, a theoretical physicist; and Chris, a sexually charged teenager.
Bergen’s typical fictional hero, the victim of spiritual despair, fits into a powerful Anabaptist archetype, the martyr, which Bergen re-visions and emphasizes in the very first paragraphs of the book. Saul opens his confessional, saying: ?I do not suffer well, and this, in the final totaling of my life, may be my greatest failure. To suffer well, I have been taught, is to find joy in pain, to be steadfast and fly beyond the temporal, to bear one’s cross. Suffering well, it seems, describes the young Anabaptist man who, in 1528 at Bruck, on the Mur, and about to be drowned for his faith by the papistic Roman church, laughed at the water? (1).
If Saul does not ?suffer well,? it is because he has lost the faith of his father, who embraces suffering because he believes that the ?kingdom of God is in heaven, not on earth, and to have been drowned in a sack or burned alive, would have given him great joy? (4). In his spiritual doubting, Saul’who believes only in earth, not heaven’sees a martyr’s death as ?an unreal death filled with impossible expectation, idealism and stupidity? (4). The grief he suffers in his quiet heartache is less like burning at the stake and more like Chinese water torture: ?. . . water drip, drip, dripping onto my forehead? (1). Such heroes encourage the comparison of Bergen to John Updike’all of whose works Bergen has read and deeply admires.
The despair that Bergen’s main characters endure may also be related to the Mennonite Brethren tradition of which they and their author are heirs. In a religious culture that tends to be fundamentalist, evangelical and revivalist, and that emphasizes being ?saved? and having the ?assurance of salvation,? the confirmation of blessedness by the way one feels’an emotional high’cannot be perpetually maintained. So, for instance, Johnny Fehr of A Year of Lesser submits to baptism and rebaptism to find and maintain that assurance. However, only in flying in an airplane can Thomas, in ?Sitting Opposite My Brother,? experience ?the brief thrill of living in a constant state of grace? (89). Anything short of that is, by revivalist doctrine, a spiritual failure, hence easy cause for despair in Bergen’s heroes.
The martyr archetype is so potent for Bergen that it embraces implicitly all of the stories in the book, not only because the allusion to Martyrs? Mirror appears in the very first paragraph but also because of what Bergen himself says about Martyrs? Mirror:
I was curious about the stories in M[artyrs’] M[irror]?the clarity, the facts, the utter belief, the faith (the idea that these people believed in something) even if the faith could be perceived as folly’all of this interested me. This doesn’t exist in our day’we are too skeptical, too wary. I thought that it made for an interesting juxtaposition’one man’s lack of faith in the light of his son’s death and the stories he grew up on. . . . I stumbled upon the [Martyrs? Mirror] stories and, perhaps, co-opted them or stole them for my own stories.
For Bergen to say that he ?co-opted them or stole them for [his] own stories? suggests that he, too, sees the archetype of the martyr underlying his narratives’albeit modernized, under the influence of twentieth-century existential angst.
Most of Bergen’s stories do resolve their dualistic tension, but usually in favor of the troubled skeptical protagonist, not his spiritual brother. This modestly happy ending makes of each story a kind of comedy, or commedia (spiritual comedy), although with the unorthodox striver vindicated rather than his confident counterpart. Moreover, usually the resolution is enabled or represented by the actions of a woman who dispenses a kind of divine grace in favoring one man over the other.
The opening story, ?The Bottom of the Glass,? offers the most interesting of these resolutions. Saul’s grief over the loss of their son Daniel has led him to stop attending church, to decline fathering another child with his wife Vange, and even to begin a kind of affair with their neighbor (and his rival’s wife) Ruthie. Yet at the end of the story, where Saul has plunged even more deeply into despair by learning that his son’s corpse was found at the bottom of the pool rather than floating on top, and where he is tempted to drown his sorrows even more so in drink, his wife Vange ?is whispering salvation in my ear from across the lawn, from Leslie’s [their daughter’s] room. . . . This brings me around and I look up expectantly, as if searching for someone? (14). This sequence of events replicates the classic workings of providence in salvation: the graceful invitation by the divine (?whispering salvation’) and the soul’s questing response (?look up expectantly, as if searching’).
The complex image of Saul then contemplating his shot glass of whisky, with the urge to empty it, has many possible implications. Merely drinking it would suggest his rejection of Vange’s ?salvation? and his continued despair, drowned in drink. More constructively, the ?warping? (14) image that the shot glass gives him suggests that Saul is seeing ?through a glass darkly.? At the bottom of the glass, however, he sees ?an angel . . . and I need to rescue that angel? (14). Presumably he drinks, or finally accepts his cup of suffering, turns his back on his flirtation with Ruthie, and returns home to impregnate his wife, thereby rescuing the angel and accepting a kind of salvation. Does Saul then change his name to Paul?
The unusual name of Saul’s wife, Vange, supports such a reading. Bergen says he intended the name to suggest ?evangel? or ?evangelistic,? which is consistent with Bergen’s semi-allegorical naming of many of his men. Indeed, the women’s names in the collection of stories are more consistently suggestive than are the names of the men characters. In ?Where You’re From? and ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? Thomas? wife is named ?Bea,? the shortened form of ?Beatrice,? which means ?grace? or ?blessedness’?and which also suggests the saintly woman Beatrice who led Dante to his own salvation in The Divine Comedy. Thomas? brother Tim also had a former girlfriend named ?Grace.? ?Goodbye, Grace,? they say to her when she leaves the room (65), in a symbolic exit that suggests Tim’s loss of religious faith. In ?The Fall,? a very Augustinian narrative, the name of the perverse, evil-seeming daughter is ?Anna,? which also means ?grace.? In ?Hey? the woman of contention is named ?Lily,? after a traditional symbol of purity, especially of the Virgin Mary. In ?Cousins? the woman of salvation is Constance, or ?faithfulness.? In ?Light? she is Cynthia, the moon goddess of chastity. Sonia, or ?holy wisdom,? is Eric’s wife in the same story.
In ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? the woman of contention is named ?June,? which suggests James Russell Lowell’s view of the month ?when, if ever, come perfect days.? The story associates June’s brightness with Jesus through Thomas? recollection of the Sunday School song ?Jesus bids us shine with a clear, clear light? (82). However, June and her strangely named son, ?Sundeep Knowlton Felix? (?bright-knowing-happy’), are only pseudo-savior figures for Timothy, since they are not his wife and child, as he originally claims to his brother Thomas, and the exposure of this fraud goes hand in hand with our increasing understanding that erstwhile missionary Timothy has lost the faith and salvation that he once was so sure of.
The women-saviors are not so because they possess superior spiritual qualities but because they offer to the men their whole selves’physical, psychological and sexual. Their ?capacity to give? (135) and to be present and vulnerable to a needy man offers the only kind of salvation available for the despairing men in these stories. As Cynthia in ?Light? realizes: ?We need another’s body to touch, to hold down, to help us carry our own weight? (117). That statement becomes a kind of central idea in the collection. One index to the happy ending of the three key stories focused on in this paper is that they conclude with their heroes in bed (or, in the case of Saul, probably so) with their wives.
Another index to the hero’s relative salvation is whether or not he has children, with children suggesting a blessed union and childlessness suggesting continued spiritual sterility.
In ?The Bottom of the Glass? Saul’s having lost his son (his religious father blames him for it) and his initial unwillingness to father another child are signs of his despair. In ?Where You’re From? and ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? the childlessness of Thomas and Bea is an index of Thomas? doubt. Likewise, in ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? Tim’s eagerness to claim June as his wife and Sundeep as his son is really an attempt by him to cover up his lost faith. In ?Hey? the true sign that Lily has been saved from her wayward flirtation with theology and philosophy is that she happily becomes pregnant by her husband Andy. Even Anna, the bad-seed child in ?The Fall,? represents a kind of salvation for Donald and Candace, and even Anna seems slightly improved upon learning that her father and mother will have another child.
How should this pattern’of one skeptical man in a struggle with his male spiritual opposite being favored and thereby ?saved? by a giving woman’be regarded? For a feminist critic like P. J. Gerbrecht, Bergen’s view of men being saved by yielding women is just another example of male chauvinism. Eric Henderson sees the sexual experience as an end in itself: ?In a faithless world, the transitory and temporal hold the only redemptive power possible.? In his review of A Year of Lesser, Daniel Born sees the influence on Bergen of D. H. Lawrence, the modernist who found in sexual intercourse a saving transcendence.
But Bergen seems to be tapping into deeper literary roots than that. After all, in the Petrarchan tradition from the European Renaissance, the self-accusing, despairing male worships a perfect, aloof woman’?Cynthia,? or the moon goddess, being one of her conventional identities. However, Bergen’s women are not aloof and resistant. Even further back in literary history one finds in medieval allegorical literature the beloved woman allegorized as God, or Jesus, or Mary, the lover of souls. In Livre du Cueur d’Amours Espris, for instance, the questing knight named Cueur (Heart) searches with his companion Desire ?for Grace, a lady of great beauty.? On the surface, in Bergen-land the physical and sexual quest predominates, as communicated by Bergen’s exquisite and often bizarre sensual images. But the deeper, quasi-allegorical structure that Bergen also provides allows for more religious possibilities.
If Bergen’s characters are often ?saved? by love, they are saved in unusual ways and, one senses, never permanently. As the long reference to Pilgrim’s Progress at the beginning of ?The Fall? suggests’it concludes with, ?What shall I do [to be saved]?? (67)?the question and the ensuing quest are as important as arriving in the Heavenly City. As Cynthia in ?Light? realizes, ?It had more to do with recognizing and not being frightened by her own image in a mirror. With traveling and not getting lost; with light? (108). Self-understanding, enlightenment, moving on, not getting lost? one might also add living on the ?edge,? a word that appears in almost every story’these terms characterize the religious quest of Bergen’s typical doubting pilgrim believer who sees and accepts, like Saul, the ?irony? of life.
Like Johnny at the end of A Year of Lesser, the typical Bergen character ?presses on? (215). In using those archaic words as the very last two in the novel, Bergen reminds the careful reader of St. Paul: ?Brethren . . . this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and, reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus [my italics]? (Phil. 3:13-14, KJV). If in Sitting Opposite My Brother Bergen emphasizes the ?pressing on? rather than the prize, and if he redefines the prize in a radically different way, he nevertheless depicts compelling and convincing spiritual questers and quests in his impressive debut book of fiction.
[*]Ervin Beck, Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, was co-chair for planning of Mennonite/s Writing: An International Conference. With John D. Roth, he is co-editor of this issue of MQR, as well as of the October 1998 issue that was later published as Migrant Muses: Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S. (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1998).
1. Sitting Opposite My Brother (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1993); A Year of Lesser (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1996); See the Child (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999); The Case of Lena S. (Toronto: McClelland Steward, 2002).
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. The stories that the paradigm in this essay fits least well are ?The Vote,? which even the author thinks does not belong in the collection; and ?La Rue Prevette,? which best anticipates Bergen’s later fiction. Bergen says that he has tried to write a novel based on the brothers in ?Sitting Opposite My Brother? and ?Where You’re From? (his favorite story), but without success.
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. For a discussion of binary oppositions in regard to Mennonite community and Mennonite literature, see Hildi Froese Tiessen, ?Beyond the Binary: Reinscribing Cultural Identity in the Literature of Mennonites,? MQR 72 (Oct. 1998), 491-502.
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. Both Daniel Born (MQR [Oct. 1998])and Joan Thomas find Updike-like qualities in Bergen’s writings.?Thomas, ?Standing Uneasily Outside the Faith,? Winnipeg Free Press, Aug. 8, 1993. About Updike, Bergen says: ?I have read all of John Updike and I admire his writing, particularly his earlier short stories and his Rabbit tetralogy. I like his frankness, his style, and his treatment of faith.?
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. The hero, imagery and theme of Bergen’s ?The Bottom of the Glass? are provocatively suggestive of Chapter 9 of Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China, which is titled ?Drink Ye All of It.?
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. Review of Sitting Opposite My Brother in Canadian Literature (Spring 1996), 144-47. However, Douglas Reimer sees the opposite, saying that Bergen’s men ?live subjected to their wives and other women about them.??Surplus at the Border: Mennonite Writing in Canada (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 2002), 12.
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. Regarding the allegorical possibilities in his stories, Bergen says: ?I’ve never considered myself an allegorical writer. I don’t think the stories are pat enough or even clearly focused enough for allegory. Allegory implies a didactic approach; I would hope that I am not didactic. God forbid. The references are merely allusions, something to layer the story, to draw the leader down another path.? In addition to Pilgrim’s Progress (67), another allegorical text alluded to in Sitting Opposite My Brother is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (55, 56, 89). Lightly allegorized women also appear in Mennonite Stephen Byler’s first novel Searching for Intruders, insofar as in the first half the narrator is married to Melody and in the second half he is in love with Alethea, whose name he defines as meaning ?not false? (178). His is a quest for Beauty and Truth.?Searching for Intruders (New York: William Morrow, 2002).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Resolving Dualisms in Sitting Opposite My Brother