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Novel Spirits: George Saunders Goes Long

Published in Issue 47
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Random House. $28.00, 368pp.
In her latest collection of essays, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays, Cynthia Ozick discusses Lionel Trilling, who despite being recognized as an esteemed literary critic of his time—a “figure” is Ozick’s word—had written to himself in his journal that he felt under-accomplished and that the road to a lasting literary contribution to the world was simple: it was the novel or nothing. Ozick deems The Middle of the Journey, the one novel Trilling did complete before his death, a good but not great book, an honorable beginning, but what puzzles her is how Trilling was haunted by the Novel, as a literary category in America. To succeed at the novel was to achieve true success; everything else was just pretending.
Ozick herself has been the victim of similar curses. Before publishing her first stories, before embarking on her career of literary essays for which she is one of my favorite living writers, she labored for seven years on a novel never published, Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love. She then labored for another seven years on a novel that was finally published—Trust—about which she self-laceratingly brags not one person has actually read all the way through. It was only after getting over this multi-year, multi-novel hurdle that Ozick started to become the writer we begin to recognize today, who did, it must be said, go on to write “successful novels.” But it was the novel as gauntlet, the novel as totem, that cursed her, and seems to curse her still.
We’ve moved past all that, right? We’ve got micro-fictions and flash fictions and autofictions and lyric essays and confessional literary criticism about dildos. Sadly, no. Despite all our new-fangled literary categories, which are often just new names for old things, Parkay for Oleo-Margarin, American literary culture is still haunted by the Novel. It is the monolithic literary form of this country, the category against which all other kinds of writing are measured—a strange thing, because aside from “a prose work of a certain length,” it’s basically impossible to define. There is the persistent myth of the Great American Novel, a book expansive enough to encapsulate our country’s unique breed of idiocy and promise, a collectively envisioned cartoon of what a novel should be. And like American Exceptionalism or home buying as a path to wealth, some myths never die, no matter how crude.
All of this baggage is particularly problematic for the short story writer. I should say the “American short story writer,” since there aren’t many other kinds. The short story, with the requisite Irish exceptions, hasn’t prospered in the same way anywhere else, at least not to become its own codified arena of literature, so that we have several Great American Short Story Writers. Why this form has thrived here and not elsewhere is an interesting topic, but one for another essay. And yet despite this history of success, and despite the infrastructure of support for story writers (and poets!) that exists via the American creative writing complex, the history of the American short story is littered with great writers who aggravated their natural talents by cranking out a novel to satisfy the culture. One can skim the bibliographies of celebrated story writers and see these novels peeking out bashfully, mixtures of literary tokenism and self-imposed self-improvement, as if writing a novel really were like running a marathon—so many hail mary bids to win respect from an absent cultural father.
Novels by short story writers (let’s pretend for a moment that these categories aren’t porous) often feel too long, yet not long enough. One type is like John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, a collection of linked narratives that aren’t independent enough to be stories yet not connected enough to accumulate into a cohesive narrative. It feels like a bag of marbles rather than a marble sculpture. The other type of story-writer novel is the overbuilt birdhouse: a structure with an extreme amount of planning in which not much actually happens.
Which brings us to George Saunders, arguably the preeminent American story writer of our day. This post of pre-eminent, living story writer is like the Presidency. Only one person can occupy it at a time, and sadly that person is usually male. The requirements of this office are not just writing good stories. And make no mistake, Saunders writes excellent stories. This person must be iconoclastic. He must have imitators, and boy, does Saunders have imitators. This is not his fault. He is very successful at his own shtick, but that shtick contains enough easily identifiable characteristics that younger writers—willingly or not—can imitate him. It’s to Saunders’s credit that vast swaths of contemporary American writing look like Saunders’s discards. Many writers have made entire careers out of being Diet Saunders. I’m not going to name names. Just throw in an absurd premise set slightly in the future, a premise that seems to comment somewhat ironically on our late-capitalistic quagmire, throw in some lightly magical phenomena that function as heavy-handed metaphors, and maybe a pinch of moral allegory, all wrapped up in a heart-on-sleeve-be-kind-rewind sincerity, and you’ve got yourself a sub-Saunders story. And I say all this as someone who finds Saunders’s aesthetic terribly alluring, as someone who has written these stories myself. I’m not blaming people who write like Saunders (or not too much, at least). They might have come to it all on their own. Perhaps Saunders is merely the current apotheosis of a certain angle of approaching the world. Or maybe he’s not. But either way, you don’t have to pull a muscle trying to uncover Saunders’s overwhelming influence.
And this influence is not just on prose style. Saunders is thought of somewhat generically as a saint, as someone who exudes a Jesus-like kindness, about whom Joshua Ferris says, “He seems in touch with some better being.” Tobias Wolff says, “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” I have no wish to dispel these excellent thoughts about Saunders’s character, but it’s a little weird how our literary culture turns excellent male writers (again always male) into gurus. Saunders isn’t just the best American writer currently writing stories; he’s the Gandhi of grad school.
But all this adoration aside, Gandhi still hadn’t written a novel. And short story writers who haven’t yet written a novel are treated like spinster women in a pre-war patriarchy: Why won’t they get with the program? What is wrong with them? And so here we are at the beginning of 2017 with Saunders finally walking a novel down the aisle, whether by cultural compulsion or authorial ambition no one truly knows.
Lincoln in the Bardo covers approximately the first 24 hours after the burial of Willie Lincoln, the president’s third son, from typhoid fever. Upon his death, Willie enters a “bardo,” traditionally a Buddhist state between your past earthly life and your next reincarnation. The bardo at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown is a crowded place, full of dead souls who won’t admit to themselves that they’re dead and fear moving onto the next plane; whether this next plane is specifically heaven or hell or Buddhist reincarnation is left mysterious. Willie’s eventual realization that he’s dead and that he should move on from the bardo is facilitated by three ghosts—Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and The Reverend Everly Thomas. These ghosts are our heroes in triplicate and function as narrators of the novel, though narration isn’t quite the right word.
The novel is split unevenly between two modes. One mode consists of occasional brief chapters of historical quotations, creating an assemblage of primary sources. These historical clippings give a window onto the context of the time: the depth of the Lincolns’ grief over the death of Willie, the fact that a state dinner was held at the White House on the night immediately preceding Willie’s death, and the growing national rage at the carnage of the Civil War. These historical bits are mixed in the much larger soup of the second mode: Willie’s time in the bardo alongside its many infuriated guests. This portion of the novel, its majority, is rendered like the dialogue of a play, where different ghosts show up and tell their stories or comment on the action (Bevins, Vollman, and Thomas being the most frequent participants). Of course these ghosts, in fine Saunders fashion, are a bit wacky, and are in states that reference how they died. For instance, Vollman, who died the day he was to finally consummate his marriage to his much younger wife, wanders around the bardo with an enormous erection, while Bevins, who committed suicide after being thwarted by his illicit gay lover, is a constant mushroom of sprouting jealous eyeballs. Etc. The result is a goofy parade of souls, each inflamed by the injustice of no longer being alive and eager to tell his or her story. There’s Eddie and Betsy Baron, the foul-mouthed worst parents ever; Lt. Cecil Stone, a racist, antebellum Yosemite Sam; Thomas Haden, a dutiful and docile slave during his life, now consumed with rage at his complicity with his own subjugation; and the Bachelors, a set of three men racing about enjoying their freedom and raining down hats of all styles on anyone who gets in their way. The result is a kind of Richard Scarry’s Busytown of the Undead.
Here’s what happens. The just-deceased Willie arrives in the bardo and is discovered by our three main ghosts as well as many others. Later that same day, the day of Willie’s funeral, Abraham Lincoln returns to the cemetery to see his boy’s body one last time. Frustrated that his father is talking to his “sick-form” rather than him, Willie enters his own dead body, and hears the words his father utters through his tears. The ghosts, when they enter the bodies of the living, can’t quite “possess” them in this novel, but they do feel all of their sensations, as well as the entirety of their past. It’s during this exchange that the elder Lincoln tells his son that he will return again to see him, which is why afterward Willie refuses to move onto the next plane. This is particularly bad because children were not meant to remain in the bardo, even more so than the adults, and Willie is soon ensnared in a concrete-like carapace composed of the faces of grievous sinners (baby killers, incest committers), from which our trio must repeatedly free him. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not entirely clear what’s going on.
Word comes that Lincoln is still on the cemetery grounds, so Bevins and Vollman race off to find him, enter him, and try to convince him to return to the chapel where Willie is interred, which will somehow persuade his son’s ghost to move onto the next life. Finally reunited in the chapel, Willie enters his father and realizes that he’s actually dead and announces this to the ghosts surrounding him, much to their shock and dismay. It’s the one thing none of them wants to admit. With this, Willie moves onto the next realm, the arrival of which is always described the same way: “Then came the familiar, yet always bonechilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.”
The result, as you might have intuited, is one extremely goofy book. The novel isn’t bad per se, but it’s a decidedly lumpy reading experience. In part it’s highly enjoyable, a kind of Saunders-does-Dante romp. The book, with its copious white space and snappy dialogue and hardly any detailed narration, reads quickly enough, though it seems to take forever to get anywhere. The gears never really catch to achieve that coasting downhill feeling.
The most effective parts of the novel are when we see President Lincoln grieving over his son. Perhaps my reaction was a little too personal, but as the father of small children, I found these sections almost intolerably moving. Here’s a moment of such grieving from when Bevins and Vollman enter Lincoln in their attempt to persuade him to return to the chapel.
First time we fitted him for a suit.
Thus thought the gentleman.
(This did the trick.)
First time we fitted him for a suit, he looked down at the trousers and then up at me, amazed, as if to say: Father, I am wearing grown-up pants.
Shirtless, barefoot, pale round belly like an old man’s. Then the little cuffed shirt and buttoning it up.
Goodbye, little belly, we are enshirting you now.
Enshirting? I do not believe that is even a word, Father.
I tied the little tie. Spun him around for a look.
We have dressed up a wild savage, looks like, I said.
He made the growling face. His hair stuck straight up, his cheeks were red. (Racing around that store just previous, he had knocked over a rack of socks.) The tailor, complicit, brought out the little jacket with much pomp.
Then the shy boyish smile as I slid the jacket on him.
Say, he said, don’t I look fine, Father?
Then no thought at all for a while, and we just looked about us: bare trees black against the dark-blue sky.
Little jacket little jacket little jacket.
This phrase sounded in our head.
A star flickered off, then on.
Same one he is wearing back in there, now.
And here is the moment when Lincoln first visits the chapel and Willie becomes so frustrated that his father can’t see him that he enters his own dead body:
The lad threw one arm familiarly around his father’s neck, as he must often have done, and drew himself in closer, until his head was touching his father’s head, the better to hear the words the man was whispering into the neck of the—
Hans Vollman
His frustration then becoming unbearable, the boy began to—
Roger Bevins III
The lad began to enter himself.
Hans Vollman
As it were.
Roger Bevins III
The boy began to enter himself; had soon entered himself entirely, and at this, the man began sobbing anew, as if he could feel the altered condition of that which he held.
The Reverend Everly Thomas

As the quotation illustrates, when Devins, et al., speak, it’s sometimes their speech and sometimes straight narration, and at other times even reported speech of other characters present on the scene and presumably capable of talking on their own. The effect is something like a Moises Kaufman play, a collage of voices, and while this can be quite powerful on stage, here the device often makes for awkward reading. Who is speaking and why? Plus, the way the attributions are handled, with the speaker’s name given after what’s been spoken, and the rapid back-and-forth between our three narrators—though not so much between each other as between themselves and the reader—render the who question mute. It doesn’t seem to matter, and this reader let the individual narrators bleed together in his mind with no apparent side effects.
Another effective part of the book is the mass possession of Lincoln’s body, which is an attempt to keep him from leaving the chapel. Our three heroes call for help and the ghosts, excited by the presence of a living being walking around, jump into action. “What a pleasure,” Bevins says. “What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds, and glimpses, also, of Mr. Lincoln’s mind. How good it felt, doing this together!” This moment of joyous unity—this “serendipitous mass co-habitation”—removes the remaining scars from their recently departed lives. (Vollman loses his erection; Bevins has a normal number of eyeballs, etc.) In a way the bardo, outside of Lincoln’s body and its magnetizing purpose, is a kind of libertarian hellscape, a compendium of self-interested ghosts spouting their self-justifying narratives.
At the end of the book, the specter of history infiltrates the narrative, more so than the contextual primary source quotations sprinkled throughout. Lincoln’s final visit with his son’s ghost and his possession by the bardo’s other ghosts imbues him with a sense of resolve regarding the Civil War and how to win it. He walks away realizing it’s a fight that must be won at all costs, despite its guaranteed, immense bloodshed. Willie’s death in a way represents all of the young soldiers who have died. This moment of resolution ends with a great huzzah to the optimistic promise of America, worthy of an Obama speech, where “all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free, that any man, any free white man, could come from as low a place as he had . . . might rise, here, as high as he was inclined to go,” as opposed to “the king-types who would snatch the apple from your hand and claim to have grown it, even though what they had, had come to them intact, or been gained unfairly . . . and who, having seized the apple, would eat it so proudly, they seemed to think they had not only grown it, but picked it, and invented the whole idea of fruit, too.” I didn’t intend to finish reading this novel on the last day of Obama’s presidency, but that’s what happened. There I was, the day before King Baby was sworn into office, reading about liminal states and the need to face one’s fear and go into the light, children. But by the time you read this review we will all have jumped the fence of that particular bardo, where no Tangina can save us.
Despite the novel’s echoes with our current national trauma, I miss the humor of Saunders’s earlier work. There are no zombie grandmothers screaming “show your cock!” here, and the moments that are obviously intended to be humorous come across as mostly goofy. This also might be a personal preference: funny writing is great; goofy writing is not as great. There is a fine line between them, one that I’m not wholly capable of defining. I apologize for lapsing into know-it-when-I-see-it-ism. In the Saunders’s stories, the jokes have teeth. But this feels more like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, characters paraded onstage one after the other. They’re amusing but they’re not bruising.
In hindsight, Saunders’s main talent—of his many talents, let’s be honest—is how he reduces his worlds via (paradoxically) ramping up various twenty-first century phenomena. He’s able to do so much with so little because it’s grafted onto our shared experience. His stories are only slightly off from reality. And while the predicament of the ghosts is interesting and occasionally moving, one nears the end of the novel wanting them to get on with it.
Finally, despite Saunders’s enthusiasm for the bounty and potential of America and the felt resonances between his historical novel and our present time, I feel a little cheated by his retreat into the past. One hates to trot out Henry James’s old imperative that the novelist deal with the “present, palpable intimate,” but we’ve had plenty of writing about Lincoln. What we need is eyes on the now. Now that he’s satisfied the cultural obligation to produce a novel, perhaps Saunders can return to focusing on his satirical short stories. Lord knows we need to see what kind of story Saunders will write when life itself has turned into a Saunders story.
Barrett Hathcock is a short story writer currently writing the great American birdhouse. He has written one collection of stories, The Portable Son. He lives in Mississippi.
Published in Issue 47

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
Sylvia Plath

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Fast fact about writing

Well-known writers who have suffered from writer's block include George Gissing, Samuel Coleridge, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Mitchell and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writers who overcame writer's block and published new work after a hiatus of decades include Harold Brodkey, whose novel The Runaway Soul appeared some 30 years after it was first projected, and Henry Roth, whose first novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934; his second, Mercy Of A Rude Stream, did not appear until 1994.