EAD ENOUGH OF ANY ONE AUTHOR’S WORK, and you’re likely to discover their pet obsessions. John Irving has a thing about bears. Michael Chabon (pg. 48) can’t seem to help writing about tragedies befalling dogs. For George Saunders, it’s ghosts. His four books of short stories are full of spirits popping up or hanging around. It’s not about horror — he just likes them. Or, rather, he likes what ghosts mean — what they say about time, or guilt, or our inability to get over ourselves. “We’re just these Darwinian cut-outs,” he says. “But ghosts are a rudimentary way of reminding myself that what we see can’t be the end all and be all. We’re literally just perceiving machines with a very narrow focus.”
Saunders is all about expanding our focus. He’s doing it now by publishing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, at age 58, after a long career of writing short and non-fiction (which has given him accolades such as the prestigious Macarthur Genius Grant). The book traces the story of what happens to Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, after he dies. (For those unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, the Bardo is like a purgatory, in-between life and death). The story is pure Saunders: heartbreaking, humane, deeply generous, weird, and, not for nothing, funny. Imagine Kurt Vonnegut — all his humour and humanism — and inject a healthy dose of both the spiritual and the surreal, and that’s Saunders. He deserves to be your next favourite writer. Sorry, novelist. He’s a novelist now.
RIsn’t afraid of ghosts
I had the same progression that you described. I’m going to write a novel, and it’s going to be so different, and I can’t wait for the difference to start. The joke I make is that I’ve been making custom Yurts my whole life, and somebody said, “Can you build a mansion?” and I said, “No. Wait! Yeah! I can just combine a few yurts.” I fought so hard not to write a novel, that when I got into it, I did it begrudgingly. I tried to keep it honest. Abide by the same principles as a story, which is if you’re central, you’re welcome, if you’re not I’d like you to step out. I still had the idea of the sprawling family epic, but when I would think of it I would almost throw up.
You know what it actually is? When you say “sprawling family epic” we both know what that book is. And who wants to write that book? If we can imagine it intact, why do we want to write it?