George Saunders and the Blank, Blank Slate

Where does one begin in describing the Saunders novel Lincoln in the Bardo other than to say that the phrase “matter light blooming phenomenon” will never be the same again. Wait, you've never heard of “matter light blooming phenomenon”? Well, maybe that goes to show us something about Saunders brilliance; he crafts entirely original worlds, parallel to our own but with language and physical properties completely distinct yet fully, unquestionably real within the realm he creates.

I am refusing to provide any explanation whatsoever as to the meaning of the above phrase- if you don't know, you need to read Saunder's novel. Suffice it to say that Saunders has the boundless imagination of our finest science fiction writers yet his writing is infinitely more grounded in reality than the vast majority of science fiction. Saunders doesn't imagine futuristic or alien worlds of advanced technology and innovation; he simply reinvents our own reality by crafting alternative natural laws that don't technically exist but makes it so clear, such is his genious, that they oh-so-obviously could. Again, no examples will be provided as spoilers would be unacceptable; you need to experience the book for yourself.

You don't need me to do a plot summary- those little nuggets of information are widely available elsewhere; the title is based on the primary thematic element of President Lincoln mourning the death of his young son Willie at the cemetery, and the observations and interactions of the “dead residents” there, yet if I had to make one large summation of the beauty, magic, mastery and brilliance of L in the B it would be that, in exploring the after (and before) lives of the many and amazingly varied residents of the cemetery, Saunders has crafted a larger commentary on life than simply a late, great president's grief at the passing of his young son. The true “stars” of this ambitious book are every character but Lincoln and Saunder's imagination in creating this near-endless cast of characters is truly a marvel.

Perhaps, rather than describing the boundlessness of Saunder's imagination, I could instead say the following: concerning just about all writers I have ever read, George Saunders slate starts cleaner than perhaps anyone I know. For all crafters of any art, we would like to believe that the blank canvas, page, slate before us is truly blank, our imaginations wide open, muses poised to receive the messages from the cosmos. Yet for the majority of us, our “blank” slate comes pre-filled, in its invisible background, with so many presumptions and assumptions about life. Saunders has no such limitations.

A few years ago, I took an online story writing class online “at” NYU. One of the reading assignments was “Sea Oak”. This was my first experience reading George Saunders. (I am spoiling the main plot twist in this story very shortly so, be forewarned.) Sea Oak is a semi-futuristic story about a world not so different but ours but slightly more bleak, featuring two generations of the urban poor working minimum wage jobs or not at all and barely scraping by. Until Grandmother Bernie dies one day. And then her body disappears from the cemetery. Until she shows up shortly thereafter and takes up post-life, disintegrating residence in the apartment's resident easy chair, devoting her “new life” to getting what she and her children should have gotten before, to shaping those slackers up to be the go-getters they never even came close to being. To read Saunder's rendering of the reanimated Bernie was a jolt to my understanding of what a short story could be. In the dramatic arts- theater and movies- there is a term “breaking through the fourth wall” to describe when a drama breaks the third person trance and directly addresses the viewer. To my mind, Saunders breaks through the “fifth wall”, in Lincoln... as well as Sea Oak, in always challenging a reader's presumptions about reality and standing them on their head, not just cleverly, but also, most hilariously and productively.

Before Lincoln.., which is Saunder's debut novel despite his having been a famed writer for many years, he was most revered for his short story collection Tenth of December, which I came to based on the interest engendered by my reading of Sea Oak. One thing about reading Saunders is that occasionally it takes some patience to get your reader's “feet” beneath you. I distinctly recall when reading December's first story, Victory Lap, having no idea what was going on as I read these initial paragraphs:

Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}? Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Oops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.

And onward from there for a time, trust me, not much more clear until, though, with time and just a modicum of patience, the rhythm, flow and brilliance revealed itself: despite the third person narration, it very soon becomes readily apparent that this is how this disjointed, vain, self-involved and somewhat vacuous teen girl views the world. And after shifting narrative view to similarly individualized characters, this story soon took my breath away with its unique approach to language and story telling and, ultimately, its highly compelling story line.

Now, as regards Lincoln in the Bardo, I've got to tell you that even here at Northshire, there are at least a couple of staffers who had started it and given up on it due to its unique narrative structure. I am here to tell you- don't do it, don't give up! There is so much gold to be mined here, don't be put off by Saunder's most unique presentation.

It is not a give away to tell you that the novel opens with page after page of historical quotes that set the scene, one right after another drawn from historical text, each passage painting a picture from a slightly different viewpoint of the times/Lincoln/his son Willie's sickness. Some of these passages occasionally even contradict each other. But what they mostly do is paint a picture to the reader of passage after passage with oppressive-looking bibliographical citation below each offering, large and small. Don't let the “op. cit”s intimidate you. Here's a secret; to most of us, it's not really that significant who said what in which document; after a time it is possible to flow through these passages (repeated occasionally throughout the book) without paying terribly much attention to the citations themselves. The quotations themselves are, ultimately, what is most important, not so much the source material.

By similar measure, the balance of the novel, told from the perspective of the cemetery “residents” is laid out with each characters' name after their passage. Which makes the reading experience much like reading a play, but with the character's attribution coming after their dialogue instead of before. Again, not that big a deal once you get into the flow. You can even cheat on occasion and glance ahead to determine who is speaking before plowing through their passage. The flow is there if you give in and let it happen. Ultimately, it becomes, not surprisingly given the author, a truly unique reading experience unlike anything else you've ever read.

I recommend that you let Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo sweep you away. That's the bottom line.

- Jon Fine