“What a Thing!” George Saunders, Tenth of December

tenth-of-decemberWhat a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was —

Although I found several of the stories in it interesting and memorable, I didn’t much like Tenth of December until I read “Tenth of December,” the final story in the collection. Perhaps this is a lesson in the importance of reading to the end; it is certainly a reminder that abandoning books part way through brings the risk of missing what is best about them.

I was doing OK, if not great, with Tenth of December until I got to “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Up to that point the story I’d appreciated the most was “Sticks”; I was gripped by both “Victory Lap” and “Puppy,” and “Escape from Spiderhead” moved quickly enough that I didn’t quite tire of the conceit before it ended. Then, unfortunately, I really bogged down in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: it was obviously doing a lot, but the story’s concept was so aggressive, its execution so heavy-handed, that for me the whole exercise just drowned out any underlying humanity in the story itself. (I’m not saying it isn’t there: just that the style and conceit were very distancing for me.) This slowed my momentum in the collection to the point that I nearly didn’t pick it up again.

Nevertheless, I persisted with Tenth of December, both because of Lincoln in the Bardo and because of Saunders’ reputation, including with readers whose sensibilities I trust. “Home” was a better experience for me; “My Chivalric Fiasco” was worse. Then I read “Tenth of December.” This story put a lot less gimmickry in my way; it was the only story in the book that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo. I loved it. One in ten: not a great ratio, if you weigh every reading experience equally, but I don’t think art really works that way. Reading “Tenth of December” made reading Tenth of December more than worthwhile to me. That’s part of the trick of short fiction, isn’t it? The brevity of the form means writers can try a lot of things, take a lot of chances, be a lot of different things–if they want to (as Saunders clearly does). And one really solid connection is, really, everything that matters.

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My edition of Tenth of December includes a conversation between Saunders and David Sedaris. I enjoyed their discussion very much. I read it before I got to “Tenth of December” and I thought at that point that my blog post about the collection might end up noting that I liked what Saunders had to say about short stories more than I liked his short stories themselves! (As it turned out, that was only partly true.) Saunders comments that people often say his work is cruel or angry; he acknowledges the truth of this and suggests it is “a bit of a technical flaw” but one that reflects who he is and how he sees the world. I actually wouldn’t have thought to call the stories cruel, but I did think that they were mostly kind of cold: that they were driven primarily by whatever concept animated them and so they came off as technical, even virtuosic, but lacking in the quality I would call heart. This is not to say that they aren’t in their own way sympathetic and often poignant: it’s just that what tenderness they have towards the characters, or towards the human condition,  seemed to me to be hard to feel under the performance of self-conscious cleverness.

tenth-3Naturally, my mixed and sometimes vexed response to Tenth of December got me thinking about what contemporary short fiction I have responded to more readily and positively. Because I don’t read a lot of short stories, I really don’t have a lot of other examples to draw on. I was very impressed with Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but my favorite fairly recent short story is probably Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” I have but have not read all of the collection it comes from. I think I will go back to it now and see what else is there. For those of you who read a lot more short stories than I do: is there a writer in the genre you’d recommend to me, knowing that I’m a realist by instinct and training, that my favorite classic short story is (predictable but true) “The Dead,” and that I get irritable with stories that are more cleverly self-referential than they are committed to storytelling?

“All were in sorrow”: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

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All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. [roger bevins iii]

It was the nature of things. [hans vollman]

Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. [roger bevins iii]

At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. [hans vollman]

We must try to see one another in this way. [roger bevins iii]

I realized Lincoln in the Bardo was going to work for me about a dozen pages in. The first little bit was hard going: who are these people? are they going to prattle and pontificate like this for the whole book? (By the end of the novel, I knew these two well enough to want them to stay, even though by then I also understood that it was better they should go.) Then the voices multiplied, and it was easier, if still disorienting; then we were at the party, and there were flower arrangements and “hives … filled with charlotte russe” and venison steaks; and then there was this:

Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband. They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all. [Kunhartdt and Kunhardt, op. cit.]

A lot else goes on in Lincoln in the Bardo besides the illness, death, and interment of 11-year old Willie Lincoln.Saunders takes Lincoln’s mourning for his lost son and his own extraordinary, creative, phantasmagorical vision of the inhabitants in Willie’s new home, at once among and apart from the living, and builds up a powerful story about both historical particulars and human universals. Lincoln enters the Georgetown cemetery a man broken by grief; he is ultimately overtaken by what seems like an entire nation, with all its sins and aspirations and accomplishments and omissions. In the process we too take on a multitude of stories, no less powerful (to my ongoing surprise) for coming to us in fragments. The novel is a swirl of voices, but they are placed and paced so that the narrative accumulates momentum and gains rather than loses power from the juxtaposition of the drama in the cemetery with comments about the Lincolns and their loss from observers and historians.

lincoln-bardo-2It’s a bravura display of narrative ingenuity, and especially given how fantastical the premise is, the result could easily have been (and I fully expected it would be) flamboyant gimmickry, clever and original but soulless. It isn’t, though: I think Lincoln in the Bardo is actually one of the most touching and heartfelt novels I’ve read in years. However far it spirals away from reality, and however abstract its political or philosophical or historical implications become, it always comes back to the hardest and most intimate truth of all: nothing we love lasts. “None of it was real,” says roger bevins iii near the end:

nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named then, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.

This is the reality Lincoln faces as he puts his beloved son in a box in a marble crypt and walks away (“imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way [in ‘Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Isabelle Perkins…]). “The president,” reports Mr. Samuel Pierce in his “private correspondence,”

turned away from the coffin, it appeared by sheer act of will, and it occurred to me how hard it must be for the man to leave his child behind in a place of such gloom and loneliness, which never, when responsible for the living child, he would have done.

“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict”:

When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be? [Milland, op. cit.]

bardo-3Willie’s death is as much the occasion for Lincoln in the Bardo as its subject, and there are many other sorrows recorded in it–many losses as or even more wrenching, many deaths as arbitrary or worse, and many lives that before those deaths were more deprived, more isolated, than Willie’s, that never had the kind of love that brings his stricken father out into the dark, cold night to sit one last futile time with his son. The world is much bigger, and has much bigger problems, than little Willie. His Presidential father, for one thing, carries the burden of leadership alongside his personal responsibilities and feelings. Lincoln imagines his own grief multiplied by the thousands dying in the Civil War:

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–

How should such personal suffering be weighed against the political and moral causes for which these boys are dying? “Did the thing merit it,” Lincoln wonders. “Merit the killing”:

On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?

Lincoln believes that there is an ideal, an aspiration, worth fighting for: “all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.” “The thing,” he concludes, “would be won”; he leaves the cemetery with his resolve restored and, significantly, accompanied in spirit by someone whose sadness is a motive not for retreat but for battle:

Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel you are, and as inclined towards us as you seem to be, endeavor to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves. We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadline, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do. [thomas haven]

They ride “forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen,” their unity a hopeful symbol of common cause, an optimistic invocation of a better, if distant, future.

But Saunders never lets these big ideas overpower the simplicity and finality of death, which is what gives his novel its almost unbearable poignancy.  After all, whatever our unfinished business or our unfulfilled promise, no matter the strength of our loves or our hates, one day our wish for “the great mother-gift: Time. More time” will be refused. He does at least offer some consolation in his enumerations of the “things of the world,” things that are no less precious–that are perhaps even more so–for being impermanent:

Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth.

Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. . . .

Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded. . . .

Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.