Depressing. Disgusting. Brilliant.
When trying to think of words to describe Mortality Bridge, I keep coming back to variations on those three. Steven R. Boyett has written an unforgettable tale of one man’s journey to Hell, and I wish I liked it better than I did. Ordinarily I enjoy descents to the underworld, but we all have our limits, and with Mortality Bridge I think I’ve found some of mine.
The story centers on Niko, a rock musician. He was a strung-out, washed-up failure when an agent of the Devil approached him with a deal. Niko accepted — and got famous, got sober, and got his girlfriend Jemma back. But now Jemma is dying of a mysterious illness, which Niko didn’t bargain for. He bones up on mythology and the occult, learning everything he can about “hadeography” (the geography of Hell), and then follows Jemma into the underworld to bring her back. The publisher’s blurb mentions Dante, Faust, Orpheus, the blues legend of the Crossroads, and Hieronymus Bosch as influences, and indeed that’s all there, blended by Boyett into a cohesive whole.
The writing is filled with vivid sensory detail; the reader sees and hears and smells everything right along with Niko. Clipped sentence fragments, lengthy sentences strung together with “ands” or commas, and impromptu compound words help create a stream-of-consciousness effect in places. Here’s a passage that exemplifies the style and the subject matter:
On the other side of the rock outcropping the lake of blood cannot be seen again. Only the evercrawling line, the names called from the bottomless list, the neverending plain. See them shuffling in their slaughterhouse line, crawling out there on the plain like mewling wounded babies, scraping under granite blocks like entombed cadavers falsely dead, gathered sheeplike at the Ledge. How many have lived and died since humanity began? One hundred billion? How many of that number tortured in this loathsome place? Sandgrains on a bloodwashed beach. Souls every one, all doomed, all damned, all lost. Judged and found wanting and consigned and then forgotten by what dread remorseless will. You cannot save them. Cannot even save yourself. For without even believing in a soul you bartered it away decades ago and cast its lot with every pathetic pilgrim you will see in this forsaken place. As always you have bartered. As your story says you always will.
But Jemma. Perhaps not doomed. Not damned. Not lost.
The hard part was finding a passage suitable for a PG-rated website. Mortality Bridge is extremely explicit in its descriptions of Hell’s torments. Boyett’s descriptive skill is both blessing and curse. If you follow Niko into Hell, you’re in for pages and pages of people being impaled, crushed, disemboweled, flayed, burned, and other nasty things, all in gory detail. This may be Hell, or it may be a construction of Niko’s mind — we’re never 100% sure — but either way, it’s not a pleasant place to be.
Of course, it’s Hell, so one can hardly expect a leisurely stroll in the park. But as I mentioned above, I generally enjoy underworld stories yet was pushed to my limits by this one. The depictions of tortures had me near nausea or tears, and sometimes both, for much of the time I was reading Mortality Bridge. Even some of the scenes I think were intended as comic relief, I found immeasurably sad instead.
It’s more painful to read than, say, Dante’s Inferno. I like Dante’s Inferno. But there, it’s possible to distance yourself a little, to retreat from the literal details of the torture and look at the poem through a philosophical lens. That’s harder here. Dante had an internally consistent logic regarding how each sin was punished and which sins were considered “worse” than others and so on. Boyett does assign “poetic justice” punishments to his sinners in places, but other people we never do learn what they’re in Hell for; and the idea that sins get worse as you go deeper into Hell has been discarded. We meet the Nazis well before we meet the gluttons. This shuffling is good for dramatic effect — since it means that even if you’ve read Dante, you don’t know what’s coming next — but it makes Boyett’s Hell a more chaotic, random one, and therefore sadder, at least to me.
There are some moments of transcendent joy and beauty and compassion, though few and far between. It was these that kept me going — that, and sympathy for Niko. I was tempted at times to give up and skip to the end, but decided that if Niko could persevere through Hell to find out whether he would win Jemma back, the least I could do was stick with him and read it. That, and I was intrigued by the intellectual puzzle of trying to guess what was going on in the “real” world that corresponded to certain events in Hell.
There’s a part of me that wants to reread Mortality Bridge and analyze it more closely, but I’m not sure I want to spend any more time with Boyett’s imagery. That said, I can’t deny that Mortality Bridge is a very well-written book that made me feel intense emotion. I recommend it, but only to the strong of stomach.