Stepping Westward is an ambitious novel. And at over 400 pages in length it’s a book that is undeniably meatier than your average campus novel. Malcolm Bradbury’s tale of self-discovery set in the mid-west of America ought to immediately qualify it as a classic of the genre. Sadly, it never quite happens.
This is a novel primarily characterised by reflection and self-analysis. Those hoping for something in the uproarious style of Lodge’s Changing Places will almost certainly be left disappointed. In minor English novelist James Walker, Bradbury surely creates one of the most insipid anti-hero characters in the literary canon. Feckless, weak, frosty, egotistical, unfaithful, it really is difficult to muster anything other than antipathy towards the novel’s major character.
When Walker lands at the US university town of Party to take up a year’s tenure of writer-in-residence, the reader naturally assumes a fish-out-of-water tale will unfold. Not quite. Right from the long, protracted sea journey which takes Walker across the Atlantic, this becomes a rather heavy-handed read. If Bradbury had intended art to imitate life then in devoting over 100 pages to this sea crossing he succeeds and more.
Not only does the journey seem interminable, but from a structural (and artistic) viewpoint, there is little justification. The effect is a rather uneven feeling book. Following a large section concerning life at the university, the book closes with a very short section describing an ill-fated trip to Mexico. It’s a curious effect, a mix of novella (sea journey) and short story (Mexico) bookending the main narrative.
The main narrative itself is a far from satisfactory affair either. Ostensibly, Walker is trying to adapt to a new way of life, the American way. Meanwhile America half-heartedly attempts to accommodate the rudderless Walker, a man who for all his self-analysis the reader never truly comes to know.
At times he is an innocent abroad, at other times a rather callous opportunist. Either way, Bradbury ensures the reader maintains his or her distance. It’s a device that helps the reader to maintain an objective and therefore critical view of Walker.
Walker’s time on campus is secondary to a sub-plot involving the writer’s refusal to sign an oath of allegiance to the university. Throw in some faculty wife-swapping and ruminations of American v English liberalism and frankly the sting goes right out of the tail.
Far too often the narrative loses itself in polemics. As such the novel loses momentum, Bradbury’s interest seemingly lying in examining various moral and philosophical issues. Predictably, the drama dissipates. Stepping Westward is many things but page-turner it most definitely is not.
The most successful part of the novel is arguably its closure, a spontaneous road-trip that takes our hero to Mexico. Suddenly we are moving, seeing, anticipating. Things are happening. Walker’s relationship with Julie Snowflake – his companion on the trip – is symbolic of the book as a whole: disappointing, uninvolving. It’s a bitter-sweet end to the novel, a road-trip gone badly wrong, but one in which both parties come to a greater understanding of themselves and one another.
As interesting and as well realised as this final stage of the book is, like the rest of the novel, it’s not nearly as powerful as it might have been. Julie is absent for a large chunk of the novel and is only re-introduced towards at this, the tail end. As a love interest, an evolving relationship, the Julie/Walker affair is never quite as prominent as one feels it ought to have been.
But that’s Stepping Westward all over: nearly there, but not quite; almost funny, but not quite. A novel that, in terms of the evolution of its author, perhaps came a little too early. For those wishing to explore the work of this critic-cum-author, I’d highly recommend his Rates of Exchange and Doctor Criminale, a couple of exceptionally quirky novels which knock spots of this rather meandering affair.