BRIDGE, by Lauren Beukes
Bridge, the titular character in Lauren Beukes’s trippy new novel, is adrift. She has dropped out of a business-degree program, now works full time at a bookstore, and is kicking herself for not pursuing film like she really wanted. Or only maybe wanted. Bridge doesn’t actually know what she wants or who she is. She’s the opposite of her boundlessly supportive best friend Dom, a nonbinary Puerto Rican artist who’s worked very hard to know exactly who they are.
At the beginning of the novel, Bridge’s mother, Jo, a complex, larger-than-life neuroscientist who has cast a huge shadow over Bridge’s life, has just died of brain cancer. Bridge and Dom are at Jo’s house taking care of the usual post-mortem admin when they discover a “dreamworm” — “a lumpen yarn‑y cocoon. It’s grayish yellow, bulbous and striated, like a spindle wrapped in rotting elastic bands.” The sight of it strikes a chord of familiarity in Bridge, drawing out memories she’s been repressing for nearly 20 years.
In a gleefully disgusting scene, Bridge instinctively puts a piece of the dreamworm in her mouth, and we discover that the monstrosity is in fact a portal — a bridge, even! — to other worlds. Under the right conditions, ingesting the dreamworm forces an instant consciousness swap with an alternate self in an alternate universe. This is particularly enticing to Bridge, who is desperate for some unique insight into the self she’s supposed to be in this universe. But more critically: Jo has left a string of clues suggesting she’s still alive, hiding out in another universe, waiting for Bridge to find her.
Unfortunately, Bridge is not the only person who wants to find her mother. For reasons that become disturbingly clear as the story develops, a hunter, Amber, is hellbent on destroying the dreamworm and anyone who’s used it. She’s searching for Jo, too. And she has a leg up on Bridge — Amber is psychically connected to all her other selves in all the other universes. She is relentless. She is merciless. She is a middle-aged woman with a little dog named Mr. Floof II (Mr. Floof I was eaten by an alligator). She’s also ex-military, which Beukes uses, brilliantly, to amplify the horror of Amber’s hivemind — because she is many people, she is no people. She is just the mission.
Just as the characters’ consciousnesses jump from body to body, so too does the narrative. We are Amber, tracking down inter-universe interlopers; we are Jo, discovering the dreamworm; we are Bridge and a cast of Alternate Universe Bridges; we’re even Dom, holding down the fort while Original Bridge trips on dreamworm like a wayward acolyte of Timothy Leary. But Beukes’s plotting is tight, her many voices never muddle, and the pacing never falters as Bridge tears through worlds, trying to find her mother before a genuinely frightening adversary does.
There are a few weak points. The book broaches but never satisfyingly explores the ethics of body jumping, and the same could be said of some of the novel’s emotional beats — it’s not entirely clear why Dom is so singularly devoted to Bridge or why Bridge would jump through space and time to find her somewhat neglectful mother.
But none of that detracts from the pleasure of reading the book. That’s because you can tell Beukes is having an absolute blast putting words on the page. Her fun is evident in the big, bloody action sequences; in the squirmy, almost retro grotesqueness of the dreamworm. And she does it all while probing one of life’s most tantalizing questions: How do we become the people we are?
Ainslie Hogarth is the author, most recently, of “Motherthing.” Her next novel, “Normal Women,” will be released in October 2023.
BRIDGE | By Lauren Beukes | 427 pp. | Mulholland Books | $29
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