George Saunders (2017) Lincoln in the Bardo.

george saunders.jpg

Usually, I know what I’m going to say, although I’m not quite sure how I’m going to say it. I guess I’ll start with the author, George Saunders. He’s won a stack of awards and a litany of  writers—Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Hairi Kunzru and Tobias Wolff—are stacked like library cards to testify to his originality and brilliance.

I find Saunders hard work. And I don’t like reading to be work, because I read for pleasure. I’m shallow that way. I did kinda enjoy Lincoln in the Bardo or I wouldn’t have finished the 343 pages and the bit about the author afterwards telling you how brilliant he is.

343 pages sounds a lot, a hefty tome. But if I skim through the book from the back and get to chapter LIV this is how it reads.

Had we—had we done it?

hans vollman

It seemed that perhaps we had.

roger bevins iii

That’s a chapter finished. hans vollman and roger bevin iii are ‘shades, immaterial’. There is different shades of meaning and understanding as there as shades of ghosts. They enter President Abraham Lincoln’s body and brain to remind him that he still had the key for the white stone house, the crypt, where his twelve-year-old son lies dead and he’s no longer sure if he locked it or left it open. Doubt is the key.

The voices of demons and angels are heard and heaven and hell are present in each shade. The reverend everly thomas reaches the gates of heaven and goes inside to await judgement. He has two companions with him. One wearing a pair of swimming trunks is asked to speak honestly about his life by a Christ-like figure and his heart is weighed.  There is rejoicing throughout heaven and angels sing as he is found to be one of the elect. His companion’s heart is a shrivelled thing and demons come to collect their due. When the reverend’s heart is weighed, there is a dull note and he runs from that place, expecting to be pursued, but is not and expecting to understand, but does not. He only knows his existence is marked by the boundary fence of the graveyard and he must rest in his ‘sickbox’, his body, during the day and at night he may roam, mingle and intermingle with other shades. None can be forced from that place seems to be a rule, but they must voluntarily give up that existence. Their going is marked by a state of bliss and unravelling of self into what was, is and would have been, each person existing as the shade of a multiverse.

Their staying –or overstaying – such as Willie’s refusal to move on because his father the President said he’d come back to visit causes an unpleasant stink and allows demons to enter and wrap the shade to the spot. Willie, quite simply, is in the Bardo and he should have moved on to heaven. His pure soul staying is a catalyst for change. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

Juxtaposed with the voices and backstories of the various shades inhabiting the graveyard are other voices, commentators on the social scene and what President Lincoln is doing, or not doing, or should be doing. Their voices mirror the voices of the shades, often contradicting each other and petty and vindictive as the modern-day media.

Chapter XLVII, for example, reads.

Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the causality lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at that time, the cost of life being unprecedented thus far in the war.

In ‘Setting the Record Straight: Memoir, Error and Evasion,’ by Jason Tumm, “Journal of American History.

The details of the losses were communicated to the President even as young Willie lay under embalmment.

Inverness, ibid.

More than a thousand troops on both sides were killed and three times that number wounded. It was ‘a most bloody fight,’ a young Union soldier told his father, so devastating to his company that despite the victory he remained ‘sad, lonely and down-hearted.’ Only seven out of the eighty-five men in his unit survived.

Goodwin, ibid.

President Lincoln’s loss of his son is magnified a thousand fold, his grief mirrored by thousands of others and yet it is and can only be a private affair. Whatever way the President turns in public or private he will be found wanting.

I guess I’m found wanting too. I don’t hold with the elitist nonsense and with what W.B. Yeats termed ‘the fascination with the difficult’. But in quoting Yeats I align myself with somebody well known and give myself kudos. The truth is if I’d picked up this book and read a few pages and didn’t know the author I’d have put it down and left it unread. Saunders’s added value and the weight of other author’s praise made me read on. That’s shades of shallowness in anyone’s language. But equally in another multiverse if an unknown had presented this same book to publishers I doubt without the publicity and heft of positive praise associated with Saunders’s name that it would have been published. Read on.


George Saunders (2013 [2014]) tenth of december

george saunders

George Saunder’s book of ten short stories, tenth of december, won The Folio Prize. Anyone that knows me knows that tenth of December is a very lucky and was a very propitious date for me and I should look upon this book favourably, but let’s be honest Saunders is already a success, he’s a New York Times bestseller, his short stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and  Harper’s, he’s won the genius award MacArthur fellowship and in the introduction Joel Lovell New York Times Magazine begins with the headline: ‘GEORGE SAUNDERS HAS WRITTEN THE BEST BOOK YOU’LL READ THIS YEAR and your thinking—really? The truth is I didn’t really like this book.

There is, of course, more than one truth and I don’t have a monopoly on them (although I think and act as if I do). Some stores are like a long drink of water – figurative language Saunders uses on one or two occasions to describe a particular character. Other stories have stickability in that they’re memorable. Sticks, for example, is just two pages. It begins with ‘Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal poles in the yard’. Time passes. His kids fall away.  Dad has grandchildren. But he sticks with this weird obsession with dressing the metal poles in the yard with different guises. That’s it. It’s kinda sad and gives us insight into a kinda half-life of others. Job done. It sticks.

The first story in the collection Victory Lap I didn’t like, and if a reader doesn’t like the first story, the truth is s/he rarely ventures beyond it, but again, there was a kind of truth in the ending. It starts conventionally enough ‘Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.’ Then it gets a bit weird. I’m not sure who is narrating the second paragraph. It sounds like {a pastiche} on the Olde Worlde English and later the pretend French argot of a bygone era that should never have existed and Yes it does have ‘{special one}’ in brackets like I’ve shown. And for a reader not really sure what pastiche is, or what it should mean in a story, this can be a bit frightening and off-putting. I persevered because I’m an Olde Worlde type of guy that also doesn’t exist. Alison is the town beauty. Her neighbour Kyle Boot, who she spent many an hour in the sandpit with, she describes as ‘the palest kid in all the land?’ Sorry, that’s a rhetorical question that’s not a question. Begad, but does not Kyle love and worship the most beauteous Alison as all men born of flesh are prone to do, even perverts with borrowed work vans that plan to have her for his own and make her his queen, as they did in the old days, even if it was only for a borrowed hour and if she does not come round to loving and honouring him?

There are two stories that stick out. Escape from Spiderhead and The Semplica Girl Diaries.

Jeff, the narrator in Escape from Spiderhead, is being held in a prison. We learn later in the story that he’s a murderer. He got into a fight, he was losing, with a puny younger guy and he picked up a rock and killed him. Could happen to any of us. Particularly stupid older men that drink in pubs and should know better. The narrator’s mum has used her life saving to get him moved to a research facility where he should be having an easier time. It certainly seems that way. Roll over any rock and you’ll see they have ‘voluntarily’ tested drugs on prisoners and psychiatric units. Abnesti is the head-researcher in both meanings of the word. ‘Verbaluce’ for example makes the prisoner/experimental subject more verbose and quicker thinking. A theme My Chivalric Fiasco explores more fully in a small-town dependent on passing tourist income. Abnesti has at his disposal an arsenal of different kinds of drugs. The one he is currently testing and which the company have great hopes for is ‘ED763’. ED763 reduces love to a biochemical reaction. Jeff is set up with another experimental subject Heather and, after lunch, Rachel. They make passionate love to each other exactly three times and are enraptured by each other, but only as long as ED763 is in their bloodstream. When it is withdrawn, they are indifferent to each other. Heather and Rachel have made love and been enraptured by another two male experimental subjects that day and also made love to them exactly three times. To test Jeff’s post-study indifference Abnesti asks Jeff to choose whether to administer ‘Darkenfloxx’—‘Imagine the worst you have ever felt times 10’—to either Heather or Rachel.

The Simplica Girl Diaries is a simple story of a dad, ‘Having just turned 40’,  trying to do the right thing by his girls, but doing the wrong thing for everyone. The narrator’s takes his daughter Lily to a school- girl party that has got everything they’ve not. ‘That treehouse is twice the actual size of our house’. Ha. Ha. But it’s no joke. The diarist is particularly impressed  ‘on the front of the house, with sweeping lawns, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze’. His daughter’s birthday is in a few days and she’s asked for a few classical figurines that cost a few hundred bucks that the narrator has not got, but he maxes out his credit cards before pay-check day in an attempt to keep her happy. It doesn’t work, but then a windfall, a $10 000 lottery-card win. He goes for the best little-girl party ever for the best little girl. He splashes out even leasing four SG units to hang on microfiche on his front lawn. SG units are Third World poor people who live in such terrible conditions the diarist tells us they are happy to come to America, have a wire put through their head, which doesn’t hurt at all, and hang on that wire for the duration of their contract. It’s a win-win situation, until someone cuts the microfiche and they shuffle off, still attached together and the sheriff explains that there’s some strange groups intent on liberating SG’s and explains that, no, they don’t usually get them back. The owner of the leased SG units also explains that if he had read the contract he was responsible for them and would have to pay all costs. Lose-lose, but a lesson learned?