If you want to succeed in art, you need to be constantly scanning the horizon for inspiration. For me, by and large, this comes more in the form of life experience than from direct artistic influence. A bit of happenstance, a string of tiny coincidences in my day-to-day activities, is apt to set my gears turning on a new story; a bum note on my guitar might accidentally produce a new chord that will find its way into some future song.
Less often, but of equal value, inspiration will come to me out of the art I’m consuming. This latter form often feels less like a light bulb over the head than a cattle prod in the butt. Just a few short bars of Brian Setzer’s rapid-fire rockabilly licks, and my arm will shoot out by reflex to grab my guitar. What am I doing sitting around, my inner player will demand, when I have so much work to do getting my chops up to Setzer’s calibre? Likewise in literature, two or three particularly mordant lines by Jonathan Franzen might send me into a chapter-length attempt at one-upmanship.
George Saunders’ new masterpiece Lincoln in the Bardo is of this cattle-prod variety of motivation. It’s certainly wired up right: here we have a writer at the peak of his abilities, abandoning his usual territory of shorter fiction for a foray into novel writing, positively conquering this new medium by pulling off a bold experiment in narrative form – all in the service of a story that is both hugely entertaining and heart-wrenching in its portrayals of loss and grief.
Lincoln’s fictional plot grew from a seed of truth that had been planted in Saunders’ brain years before. “[D]uring a visit to Washington DC,” Saunders wrote recently in the Guardian, “my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt ‘on several occasions’ to hold the boy’s body.” As that poignant image germinated in Saunders’ fertile mind, it became entwined with the Buddhist concept of the bardo, a ‘transitional purgatory’ that souls enter between death and rebirth. Saunders envisioned Willie Lincoln’s soul observing the president’s actions from this state – trapped there by unresolved feelings, unable to move on to heaven, watching powerlessly while his beloved father suffered over his lifeless former body.
The scope of his ambition, the size of his achievement, the ease with which he deploys his skills – the combination hit me like a bolt of lightning.”
Now, any adequate writer could likely make something readable out of such a striking concept. But George Saunders has never settled for adequacy. The author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia and Tenth of December has made his career, topped bestseller lists, won awards and acclaim, by writing the hell out of the English language in the service of stories that test the bounds of genre and realism. It’s the choices he makes in how to tell his story which elevate Lincoln in the Bardo to the level of great fiction. How best to describe Saunders’ method of storytelling? I might call it ‘epigraphia’. It’s standard practice for a novel to open with an epigraph, a quotation from another work, which sets the tone for the story to follow. Drawing from historical events, Saunders had quite a bibliography to choose his quotes from, and I suppose his first storytelling move came from being spoiled for choice. In a daring creative stroke early in the book’s development, rather than paint in his own prose based on his sources, he began cutting out quotes from the history books and arranging them in a sort of narrative collage.
For entire chapters of the book, one quote is stacked atop another, and another, each one tagged at the end with a citation detailing its real, published source. The effect of lining these often differing accounts of the same events is akin to having a dozen historians clamouring for the reader’s attention, offering competing visions of the same event.
Saunders’ bigger creative leap was to extend this format to his fictional characters, the ghosts who populate the cemetery, who take turns introducing themselves and their world, and who eventually take action to try to extricate young Willie from the bardo and send him off to heaven. As with the bite-sized historical accounts, the novel’s plot comes to us organically, through these competing voices – a whopping 166 of them, to be exact, each spoken in a perfect nineteenth-century dialect.
Like many great works, Lincoln is a challenge to its reader. Herman Melville chose to open his magnum opus Moby-Dick with a long series of epigraphs about the majesty of whaling, and though I love that book with all my heart, the twenty-page string of barely-connected declarations on the size of whales turns quickly from awe-inspiring to teeth-grinding. To follow such a strategy across an entire novel is a tremendous risk. Formatting his storytelling as a compilation of quotations, long and short, Saunders plunges us into a narrative whirlpool, and I confess that Lincoln’s first few chapters left me feeling seasick. But here is where the author’s vast experience as a short-story writer comes into play: Saunders’ mastery of the short form allows him to paint dozens of tiny character portraits in the space of just a few sentences, and my fascination with each of these speakers distracted me from my nausea until I’d grown accustomed to the novel’s stop-start rhythm.
And what a ride we have in store once Saunders’ story gets fully underway. For Willie’s death has shattered the president at a most inconvenient time. The Civil War has raged for less than a year, but already the bodies are piling up, and public opinion has soured. These twin crises converge on Lincoln and are at the point of crushing him. Already he is on the precipice. If he falls, the Union is lost – along with his son. It is left to the ghosts who watch him floundering in the graveyard the night after young Willie is interred, to reach across the ethereal divide and somehow pull him out of his grief-filled stupor long enough to save his son from eternal torment and the country from dissolution.
I’d like to say Lincoln in the Bardo works as a cattle prod to my creative self. But Saunders’ accomplishment is problematic: his voltage is too high. The scope of his ambition, the size of his achievement, the ease with which he deploys his skills – the combination hit me more like a bolt of lightning, zapping my artistic self into a charred husk. What have I ever come up with that can match a scene in which the two main ghost narrators read the mind of the president as he sits despondent on the grass in the midnight darkness of the cemetery? How can I even approach his melange of grief and guilt, on scales both global and intensely intimate, as Lincoln sets the two great weights on his heart, the mess he’s so far made fighting the Civil War, and the passing of his poor son at a mere eleven years old, against each other?
He is just one.
And the weight of it about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I –
May not have the heart for it.
Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?
When he is to be left out here?
Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss?
A parade passes. He can’t rise and join. Am I to run after it, take my place, lift knees high, wave a flag, blow a horn?
Was he dear or not?
Then let me be happy no more.
Finishing the chapter, I go back and read Saunders’ words again. As a father, I choke up; as a writer, I die.
It’s a lucky thing, then, that Saunders’ gifts extend to his personality. The man’s optimism, his enthusiasm for artists, his sheer belief in the innate value of their work, are themselves electric. He’s always been quick to remind us of the dismal early days of his career, when he struggled to find his voice: “I once wrote a 700-page book about a Mexican wedding of a friend of mine, which was called La Boda de Eduardo. Roughly translated: Ed’s Wedding. Enough said. That one took about a year of work and lots of late nights at a time when we had a new baby at home and I was working full-time. So when it turned out to suck, that was a hard blow. But in my heart I think I knew it sucked, so it was also kind of a relief – to find out I was right re. the sucking and that my taste was still active, so to speak. And also a relief to put that book (or, libro, as I might have called it back then) behind me and move on to something more worthwhile and… alive.”
The memory of La Boda keeps him humble. On his recent US book tour, time and again he engaged with his audience as peers. His main concern at these events was not, in fact, the devastating impact of his recent work on fragile egos like mine, but a far more pervasive threat: the collective writers’ block that’s gripped so many in the Age of Trump. “A lot of young artists are saying some version of ‘I can’t work,’” Saunders said at a recent reading. “‘This is not the time for it, you know, I feel like this is not the time for it.’” He went on to tackle this by extolling the virtues of creative work for its own sake: “But to me, OK, having written this book for four years, I had this beautiful experience, as anybody who writes – or reads – knows, which is, on literature your mind lights up 380%… You know, a comma can put you in tears, you know, the right semicolon or a stream of adjectives can kill you. So my thing is, our thing is, the brain on literature is maybe the best form of the human mind, except maybe the brain on love, but they’re not that different… so there you are, you’re in that state, what are you like? You’re more generous, you’re more curious, you’re more comfortable with ambiguity, you’re more inclined to look twice at a person to see if you’ve made a snap judgment, all those beautiful things.”
Saunders wrote elsewhere, “There is something so wonderful about writing in a way that feels new and authentic, that feels in line with your true taste – trying to get that to that place is like seeking the Grail. Whatever hardships have to be endured along the way, are fine – part of the larger quest, if you will.” His words here are like a salve for my singed self-worth. If George Saunders the author knocks me on my back, George Saunders the human being picks me up, binds my wounds, and sets me back on my artistic path, eyes on the horizon, looking for a Grail of my own.
George Saunders is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the inaugural Folio Prize and the Story Prize. He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University. Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury in hardback and eBook. Read more.
Author portrait © Chloe Aftel
Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories such as ‘Sex Education’, ‘The Squeegee Man’ and ‘Black Dress’ and other works have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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