American Pietà: My review of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo

Read my review of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders here, in The Public.

A year and a half ago I was finishing up my Master’s dissertation on the short story writer George Saunders. Saunders appeared in ’96 with a great fanfare of plastic fairground midway trumpets — his debut collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, established him as a searing satirist of our media-saturated society, as a sensitive chronicler of human hearts in conflict, as a living master of the written word.

I wrote to Saunders and, generously, he wrote back. That correspondence became an interview published in The White Review, a wonderful London magazine, this past summer. When he wrote to me, however, Saunders was taking time out from a very busy writing schedule — he told me he was “in the throes of this new thing.”

I’m not sure, but I suspect “this new thing” was actually a very old thing, a story based on an image that had been plaguing him for the past 20 years. This was the image of President Abraham Lincoln cradling the body of his dead son Willie, who passed away of typhoid in the opening days of the American Civil War — and this is the image at the heart of Saunders’ new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, really a debut, although it seems absurd to use that word to describe a work by a man almost universally acknowledged as “the greatest living short story writer in English.” Do I really need to say anything other than buy this book, right now?

If you’re interested in hearing more, you can read my review of Lincoln in the Bardo here, in The Public, Buffalo, NY’s top weekly newspaper.

Finally, these words from a recent Saunders newsletter seem worth reproducing here:

For me, writing the book was a four-year meditation on…well, a lot of things.   Mortality and loss, but also on literary form.  Citizenship, for sure – the idea that, if we were really living into the Constitution, we would be also discovering what love means in a political sense: the radical, passionate inclusion of everybody, just as they are.  It was interesting to be in the head of one political leader, Abraham Lincoln, who was so sad and kind and sorrowful and beaten-down and somehow found a power in that state, and an amazing sympathy for others, and a willingness to lose, or appear to, if this would serve the larger cause – and then to tumble out of the writing of that book, last spring, into the crazed politics of the moment. I went out on the trail with the Trump campaign and witnessed another manifestation of American political energy: more anxious and fearful, less inclusive – panicked, somehow; innately suspicious of The Other, increasingly mean-spirited and bullying in its goals and methods.

To have been in that peculiar artistic state for four years – a state that requires the writer to be as open as possible, comfortable with ambiguity, constantly trying to regard one’s invented characters with curiosity and sympathy, lost in the deep symbolic system that a novel can be – was a privilege.  It reminded me every day that there exists a powerful mode of thinking that we don’t use much in everyday life: intuitive, non-conceptual, bountiful.  And then, to report the Trump piece, I felt I had to come down and immerse myself in another mode – what we might call “contentious mode” – by watching a lot of cable and being on social media to an excessive degree.  That mode is different from the one we’re in when making or absorbing a work of art.  It’s agitating and anxiety-provoking, and another set of values prevail (speed, snappiness, snark, certainty).  Our main motivation can come to be, simply, to prevail– to be sure, to be forceful, to be secure in our rightness, to debunk other views.

Somehow, in our culture, we’ve tacitly agreed to accept art as something less, something inessential; a weird thing a freaky few of us do, over in a corner; a sort of quaint paper-swan-making.  But it seems to me that art is actually the most high-level thing the human mind can do; that the “brain on art” is at its most capacious and generous and dynamic; that the artistic mode of thought was given to us in order to guide us to higher ground in difficult times, to enable us to get better at empathy and truly complex thinking.  Being involved in art (whether as producer or recipient) reminds us, ritually, that this spacious part of our mind exists, that we are not meant to be (merely) beings in opposition to each other, fighting for limited resources, but are brothers and sisters at heart, capable of knowing one another’s experiences, and feeling genuine sympathy for one another.  Art instructs us in how to get into that spacious mindset, and how to abide there.

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