Beryl Bainbridge’s last novel is a haunting echo of her own final years, according to A. N. Wilson
Some writers die years before bodily demise. They lose their grip. In the last five or six years of life, Beryl Bainbridge feared that this was happening, or had happened, to her. The books which had come in a steady flow from middle age onwards slowed to a trickle, and she was seized, not merely by illness, but by a black sense that the ‘bloody book’ on which she was engaged would not come. Yet her last book, all but completed, suggests something odder was happening in her case. A prescient friend had a theory, during those years in which Bainbridge struggled to write The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. She can’t or won’t write it, said the friend, because she fears, or knows, that when she finishes it, she will die.
Clearly, such talk is only talk. But the idea that this is really about Bainbridge’s own death returned to me frequently as I read this puzzling story. It is very gripping, very funny and deeply mysterious. She has abandoned the oblique historical miniatures with which her last decade had been occupied — the worlds of Dr Johnson or the Crimean war — and she has returned to that vein of comedy in which a self- projection becomes caught up in a series of grotesque, fantastical events.
This was always a winning formula with Bainbridge, whether it was her childhood self in Harriet Said — in which she spied upon the appalling marital fumblings of a man who had abused her, as modern parlance would say, among the wooded sand-dunes of Formby, before murdering his wife; or whether it was Injury Time, in which a catastrophically incompetent attempt at a dinner party for her married secret lover turns into a scene of horror, with the diners taken hostage. These early comedies usually ended, as did her most famous novel The Bottle Factory Outing, with death.
In The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, a Bainbridgesque 27-year-old woman named Rose agrees to accompany a thickly bearded American named Washington Harold in a drive across the United States in a camper. They scarcely know one another. He calls it a camper. She calls it a van. That is the least of the differences between them. She smokes, and likes old-fashioned English food. She dislikes showers and she smells. He is quickly appalled by her, but she is bored by him. They have some lurid adventures along the way, including one characteristically joyless experience of sexual intercourse in a smelly motel. It makes as little impression upon her as do the majestic wonders of the changing American landscape which flit past the windows of the camper while she is absorbed in her own thoughts.
As so often in a Bainbridge story, it is the grotesque detail which stays in the imagination, the minor obliterating the major. For example, when Rose is held up in a bank with a gun to her head, the violence itself seems to make almost no impression on her, and what she remembers over and over again is the fact that Washington Harold was so terrified by the incident that he wet himself. (Both the camper-travellers take rather unsparing glimpses in the course of the journey at one another’s underwear.)
Both are in quest of someone called Dr Wheeler. It is not made very clear why Washington Harold needs Wheeler — it has something to do with money. Rose needs him because he ‘helped’ her during her traumatic childhood. In fact he evades the two travellers; they never find him, just as Godot never comes. But when Rose and Washington Harold get to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Bobby Kennedy is assassinated.
Bainbridge died with the novel all but complete but, with heart-rending urgency, in that final fortnight in University College Hospital last summer, she was trying to gasp out a dictated version of the ending. We do not know, therefore, whether she would have made the finished story clearer or not. Was Washington Harold supposed to be the assassin of Kennedy? A girl in a polka dot dress really did run away from the Ambassador Hotel, but Rose is not a murderess.
Curiouser and curiouser. The formula of the journey in the baking American heat is a powerful narrative device, and the mutual misunderstandings between the two travellers are a constant source of tragi-comedy. Harold decides quite early on that the girl is a retard, and she plays up to this, but then surprises the people she meets by knowing things — knowing anything: for example, knowing snatches of the Dies Irae in Latin, and being able to tell the difference between a frog and a toad.
As well as the need for often surreptitious cigarettes, Rose has a compulsion for nipping into churches. Like her creator, she is one who converted to Catholicism in her teens and now does not quite know what to make of it all: but in this final book, there is a more overt sense than in any previous Bainbridge novel that her religion is true and that there is a life after death:
It was funny, Rose thought, how immediately she had embraced the Catholic faith, and how easily she had walked away . . . . It was the Beatles, she reflected, and the hydrogen bomb . . . and people taking drugs — something she had never done — that had made faith dry up.
Washington Harold is a superbly self- preoccupied monster, one of Bainbridge’s best creations. He mistakenly believes Rose’s larky professions of ignorance. In her art, as in her life, Bainbridge played a semi-clownish role which allowed her to observe what many of her more patronising critics missed. She was supremely in control of sentences. It sounds an obvious enough qualification for a writer, but most novelists are galloping forward, trying to show off in one direction or another, or to tinker with the plot. Bainbridge was a great technician. She knew exactly how sentences should sound, and how they should fit together, and she would sometimes rewrite an opening chapter as many as 50 times before she was happy with it. When the micro-rhythm was right, the larger whole followed.
The Girl in a Polka Dot Dress is a terrific book, very funny but deeply haunting. For as the two protagonists career along the dusty highway towards a death which neither can foresee, we the bereft readers are conscious of their creator making a parallel journey, towards a death she all too clearly foresaw. It had always been the subject that interested her most. In this most deft and oblique of black comedies, you feel death creeping up on the author herself, but she mysteriously gets in the last word by snapshooting the Grim Reaper before he made his final assault.
Beryl Bainbridge is an immortal and we are all the poorer for her going. But at least she leaves this last comic coda to her incomparably impressive oeuvre.