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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

George Saudners as novelist: from What if? to So what?

Let's face it, some writers specialize in short fiction, and being able to write a great short story does not necessarily mean you can write a great novel (and vv. perhaps). Examples include Chekhov, Cheever, Munro, Trevor, Lorrie Moore - to name just a few; w/ exception of Chekhov, who has plenty of other claims to literary greatness, most try their hand at writing a novel, and today there's pressure to do so: commercial, competitive, point of personal pride. It's with regret that I say the George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which a jacket blurb says has been "widely anticipated" or words to that effect, is - based on the first half - a major disappointment: not a terrible novel by any stretch, but completely devoid of the quirkiness and insight that have made his stories so great. I've got to say I've been a fan of his from the outset; I even have a review copy of his first book (CivilWarLand...), which I loved immediately and knew I was reading the work of a major talent. He's continued to write great stories for 2 decades - my post on his Semplica Girls story has by far the most page views on Elliot's Reading - and they all bear distinct marks of his style: outsider misfit protagonists and a structure built upon the question "what if": What if humans were part of a theme park, living in diorama "cages" and enacting various stages of evolution  (e.g., caveman/woman era)? What if the latest status symbol were rows of young women from 3rd-world countries arranged in artistic patters on suburban front lawns? These ideas are creepy, weird, and just barely beyond the range of plausible - the stories make us think about our culture and our cultural assumptions. With Lincoln, Saunders has moved from What if? to So what? The novel is told by a chorus of narrators - including in the initial sections some Lincoln historians and some contemporaneous records - describing the death of Lincoln's son Willie. From that point a # of ghosts take up the narration, voices living in limbo (the bardo - a Tibetan term) and seeming to welcome Willie to their cemetery and puzzled by Lincoln's visit to the crypt where Willie is interred. I have to say that, so far, I receive no insight into Lincoln - let alone into the great forces in public life tormenting his soul, that is, the war, slavery, electoral politics - nor can I make much sense of the chorus of narrators: They are from various deceased characters, from widely differing backgrounds (a priest, a repressed homosexual, a man from an unconsummated marriage, a terribly foul-mouthed couple, etc.) and there are obvious references to other great works that visit the dead - Homer, Virgil, Dante, obviously - but no particular insight into death, or life, and lots of unanswered questions: Why are these particular people in limbo? How do they pass out of this state? Why do they have no knowledge about current life (none seems to know who Lincoln is, for example)? Overall, this reads like an OK narrative idea that GS has spun out to novel length (it looks like a long book, at 350 pp., but it's not really; present as a series of voices w/ no narrative guidance, the word count is pretty small). Friend AF recommended that I listen to an audio v., and I'm sure that's a good way to experience this work but not my style or preference.

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