Wednesday, 13 February 2019
The phantasmagoria of George Saunders
Distinguished writers can be as misleading as anyone when it comes to puffing people in their profession. I'm sure Zadie Smith reveres George Saunders, until recently confined by his own choice to the genre of the short story, even more than I now do. But it was frankly silly of her to declare that 'not since Mark Twain has America produced a satirist this funny'. Hello? Kurt Vonnegut? Philip K. Dick (whom I regard more as satirist through dystopia than a 'sci-fi author')? Without their examples Saunders' earlier work would surely not have been possible. But he has at his previous best equalled them in imagination. And with Lincoln in the Bardo, the full-length novel which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, he seems to have produced 'a masterpiece' (Z Smith again, and I'll give her that one).
First, a bit about what I read after that - chiefly The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which I'm glad I bought in an edition also including the 12 stories of In Persuasion Nation. Were one playing the 'first line of a book' game - details available on request if you don't know it - the real entry would probably stand out a mile when it comes to Frightening Phil:
It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.
Casual introduction of alien vocabulary is very Dick-ian, and we soon take it for granted that the dramatis personae are made up of odd mechanical bits and pieces: the bolt holding Phil's brain in place 'on his tremendous sliding rack occasionally fell out, causing his brain to slide rapidly down his rack and smash into the ground'. So when nasty things are done to the Inner Hornerites, the 'dismantling' keeps explicit brutality at bay, but still somehow horrifies. Enough on that story; suffice it to say that border issues and the character of Phil, such as it is, keep it topical.
The tales of In Persuasion Nation range from the comically disconcerting to the downright disgusting. The territory, in which commerce and mind-control come together in a sometimes plausible future, is familiar; I wonder if Charlie Brooker knew them and did likewise in Black Mirror (with very mixed results). But in the context of what's to come, the sudden deaths and casual slipping into Saunders' very own version of ghostlife at the very end of the last story, 'commcomm', show us where the essential weirdness of Lincoln in the Bardo comes from.
There's a difference, though, not just in terms of metaphysical scope but also in the setting, a very specific past time and happening, February 1862, and the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie. Not having read much about the construction, I was baffled at first: who's speaking, where and what is this character, that character? Ghosts, of course, stuck in a peculiar limbo and manifesting visuals - a gigantic member, multiple heads - which no film could easily render (I see from the below that there's been an attempt, but it limits what can be done, while Saunders' verbal imagination takes you much further).
There are incredible passages - well, it's all incredible, but I mean that in the sense of transcendent: the 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' with which angels whisk up some of the lost souls in the cemetery; the recollection of the past which an action of ghost-Willie brings upon the others towards the end of the fantasia. Why they choose to remain is unclear - vaguely, it's about to clinging on to life without realising you're dead, as I read it. But as in great poetry, you don't challenge the sense.
Saunders uses all this to give us a wide panorama of American life and characters both of that time - recounted in selections from the literature about Lincoln - and before it. There's also a very moving connection between Lincoln and two of the 'shard' souls, the spirits of black slaves. But to tell more would be to take away the magic. The aura remains. Buy the hardback Bloomsbury edition if you can, a beautiful piece of book production, and set aside a day to read it.