A Lin­coln’s af­ter­life in tweet-like ex­changes

Short-story writer Ge­orge Saun­ders’s de­but novel binds US his­tory and spir­i­tu­al­ism within a test­ing form. Tod Wod­icka is more im­pressed by the idea than the out­come

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction -

I’ve been read­ing the ex­traor­di­nary short sto­ries of Ge­orge Saun­ders for nearly 20 years, and one thing I’d never thought was that his warped, sneak­ily ma­li­cious and in­creas­ingly sen­ti­men­tal vi­sion of 10-min­utes-into-the-fu­ture Amer­ica would ever seem par­tic­u­larly prophetic.

Saun­ders’s dystopian sto­ries are about an Amer­ica that is more re-en­act­ment theme park or sci-fi, cor­po­rate-speak cir­cus than func­tion­ing democ­racy. There were times I thought that Saun­ders’s Amer­ica was a lit­tle over-the-top, a lit­tle too satir­i­cal and on the nose. Then 2016 hap­pened, maybe the least sub­tle year since 1933.

Turn­ing on the TV, it was sud­denly like the news was be­ing writ­ten by Saun­ders. Don­ald Trump even talked as if he were a Saun­ders char­ac­ter: his all too re­veal­ing tossed word salad of venom, steely ig­no­rance and need­i­ness. Trump feels like the end point of an en­raged, en­ter­tain­ment-sat­u­rated Amer­ica that Saun­ders’s short fic­tion has been min­ing for decades. Then, lo and be­hold, after four col­lec­tions of short sto­ries and a novella, Saun­ders’s first novel, Lin­coln in the Bardo, is a book about a Pres­i­dent. The prophetic Saun­ders of CivilWarLand in Bad De­cline (1996) has stepped back from con­tem­po­rary or fu­ture Amer­ica and, seem­ingly, gone back to the ac­tual Civil War and the last time the na­tion al­most ceased to ex­ist. Or, more par­tic­u­larly, the novel is about when Wil­lie Lin­coln, the 11-year-old son of Abra­ham Lin­coln, ceased to ex­ist after suc­cumb­ing to ty­phoid fever in 1862.

Ex­cept, Wil­lie Lin­coln doesn’t ex­actly cease to ex­ist. He wakes up in the Oak Hill Ceme­tery, sur­rounded by a Greek cho­rus of other spir­its also caught be­tween life on earth and what­ever comes next. This is the bardo of the novel’s ti­tle, the tran­si­tional space that the Bud­dhists be­lieve fol­lows life on Earth, but pre­cedes re­birth.

That the novel isn’t re­ally about the Civil War, or even so much about Lin­coln, was my first dis­ap­point­ment. How I wanted Saun­ders’s voice, after th­ese last few months.

The novel op­er­ates like a cross be­tween a film script and an oral his­tory, much of it nar­rated by two woe­be­gone ghost pals, Hans Voll­man and Roger Bevins III. Other parts of the novel use ac­tual quotes from his­tor­i­cal sources mixed in with those cre­ated by Saun­ders to give an over­view of the time. It must be said, given cur­rent events, that it’s hard not to see the novel as a kind of Twit­ter feed gone all lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal:

There in his seat, Mr. Lin­coln star­tled. Like a school­boy jolt­ing sud­denly awake in class. Looked around. Mo­men­tar­ily un­sure, it seemed, of where he was.

Like a lot of great works of lit­er­a­ture, the novel teaches you how to read it while you’re read­ing it. It oc­ca­sion­ally finds poetry in this mode of telling, and the lim­i­nal space it evokes can be both hi­lar­i­ous and chill­ing. And, too of­ten, weary­ing. Th­ese spir­its do tend to prat­tle on.

But Lin­coln in the Bardo falls short of be­ing a great work mostly be­cause its con­cept never quite con­vinces. The point seems to be that th­ese spir­its can’t move on be­cause they don’t ac­cept that they’re dead, think­ing them­selves only “sick”. I found this cen­tral premise hol­low. And when lit­tle Wil­lie joins them, and for some rea­son, be­gins to be de­stroyed, the novel falls into some heavy-handed su­per­nat­u­ral ac­tion se­quences from which it’s hard to care about the out­come. The threat never seems valid. Not once did I ever worry that Wil­lie was go­ing to be damned to the hell that Saun­ders has cre­ated for him.

But there are quiet mo­ments in the near-con­stant ghostly bab­ble, too. Ev­ery scene with the pres­i­dent, who vis­its his dead son’s corpse, are per­fect, and achingly sad. Saun­ders’s Lin­coln is a weighty and real cre­ation. Here is an in­cred­i­ble dis­play of em­pa­thetic and wise writ­ing. Saun­ders’s Lin­coln makes so much of the rest of he book feel half-baked, loud and aim­less. If only the book were just about Lin­coln. But, then, this might be a prod­uct of the ter­ri­fy­ing new Saun­ders-like era we’re in: it’s hard not to read about a pres­i­dent such as Lin­coln th­ese days and not want more of him around. I’m not sure if we can en­tirely blame Ge­orge Saun­ders for that.

Tod Wod­icka’s sec­ond novel The House­hold Spirit was pub­lished in 2015. He lives in Los An­ge­les. A re-re­lease of Philip Boehm’s trans­la­tion of the 2009 No­bel-prizewin­ning Herta Müller’s novel about the fi­nal months of a dic­ta­tor’s regime in Ro­ma­nia. Ad­ina’s close group of friends con­tains a se­cret po­lice in­for­mant and she finds her­self sub­ject to coded threats. A pho­to­graphic ac­count of fear.

Getty Im­ages

A litho­graph show­ing, from left, Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln with his youngest son Thomas ‘Tad’, Wil­liam ‘Wil­lie’, el­dest son Robert, and the First Lady Mary Todd Lin­coln.

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter Herta Müller Por­to­bello, March 2

Lin­coln in the Bardo Ge­orge Saun­ders Deckle Edge, Dh54

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