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.


Alice Munro (2006) Runaway.

I read the introduction by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t remember much of what he said. I’d guess that he talked about the way she makes a long story a short story. I’d guess that he talked about the way characters come to life on the page and just when you figure you’ve got a fix on them they do something that throws you, a poetic volte, and the story switches direction, goes on a different track that lets the reader see the characters—their motivations—more clearly. I’d guess you’d be asking why Alice Munro needs any introduction.

In the first story in the collection, ‘Runaway’, ‘Carla heard the car coming’. She lives in a caravan with Clark and the incessant rain is smothering them and their business of tending horses. Everything in their life is shit, including their relationship and Carla doesn’t know how to fix it. Clark thinks blackmailing the woman in the car, Mrs. Jamieson—Sylvia to her friends—would tide them over. But Sylvia has an eye for Carla and helps her run away. So far so soap-opera, but Carla on the bus leaving Clark is half-cocked, unsure. The denouement shows a breath-taking understanding of human nature and how we fence ourselves in.

The second story in the collection ‘Chance’ gives the reader time and place. ‘Halfway through June in 1965, the term at Torrance House is over. Juliet has not been offered a permanent job — the teacher she has replaced has recovered…’ Juliet teaches the Classics, dead languages, which is quirky and acceptable for a male teacher, but in Vancouver makes her decidedly odd. Juliet receives a letter from a man she met on a train. It’s addressed to ‘Juliet (teacher)’ the man doesn’t know her second name. Somehow it reaches her. On a whim she decides to visit him. There was something between them on that train journey, an incipient romance, and even though her potential paramour is married with a sick wife, Juliet is determines to go and see him in Horseshoe Bay.

‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’ has Juliet leaving Horseshoe Bay. Her husband has died and she is going to visit a friend – and then on to visit her daughter. Juliet’s Classic’s education has, in a curve ball, worked for her and got her a decent job as television interviewer on a local station. Her daughter is taking time out in that well-trodden path ‘to find herself’. Juliet looks forward to seeing her. They’ve always been so close. Here is where Munro stretches time, so by the end of ‘Silence’, Juliet is an old woman looking back on life and the choices she made and asking ‘what if?’

‘Passion’ is in some way my favourite. We are back on Horseshoe Bay territory. Grace is visiting the Traverses’ summer house among the ‘stupid lakes’. She had been engaged to one of the Traverses’ sons, but she wasn’t sure if she loved him. She wanted to be sure, but he seemed so right. Munro picks this love apart and weaves a different spell. Genius.