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Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Book review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (2017)

I read about 20 pages before abandoning this disappointing work that stalked along determinedly like a wet cat come in the front door with a dead bird in its mouth, eager for praise.

Much of the first little bit of the book is made up of quotes taken from other works published in the 19th century talking about Lincoln’s presidency. One night of it, in particular. By quoting from such secondary sources Saunders wants to borrow a quantity of gravitas for his own work. There are also bits and pieces in different voices supposedly making up some sort of “rich tapestry” of points of view. But the author doesn’t know how to screw up the story to a point of tension that will allow its disparate strands to cohere. You are promised little on each page for the effort expended on reading it and the plotting is loose.

Regardless, Saunders ventures gamely on, like some sort of literary Livingstone – bequilled and bescrolled in heroic style and with a pair of magic binoculars glued indomitably to his eye sockets that permit him to see ghosts and angels – ever in search of some Shangri-La of unimpeachable virtue where the natives worship at the shrines of such immortal legends as Abraham Lincoln.

A theme of innate goodness is explored in the character of Lincoln – the older man marries a much younger woman and so that he doesn’t have to impose something unpalatable on her (the consummation of the marriage), he insists that they remain just friends, but then they finally do become friends and do consummate it; then he dies – and mercifully this is all achieved quite swiftly, but the theme is not explored properly before you start to get into the spiritual world with its own themes – of longing for life, for example – and into the death of his son, Willie.

Children died with depressing regularity in the 19th century, and I don’t understand why Willie’s death is a special case. But of course, Lincoln was a superman of sensibility who even spared his angelic wife the beastly sight of his very own hirsute shanks.

It’s sort of like paintings made in the Renaissance showing the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary, mother of Jesus. How to paint the creature so that it is simultaneously realistic and divine? Priorities of verisimilitude and transcendence compete for the painter’s attention as he tries to make it both moving and uplifting. What’s the point of painting that isn’t compelling? What’s the point of compulsion unless it’s in an upward direction? It’s an impossible task, and no-one ever achieved the desired result. The angels all end up looking sleazy, like a series of beplumed pimps.

The thread of the narrative in Saunders’ book to do with children who die untimely deaths obviously has its own themes, but it’s unclear how they can be explored in the presence of all the other competing themes. Apart from an overriding sense of pity, nothing gels and you lose interest in Saunders’ fictional Lincoln fast. The cat wants to be congratulated but the dead bird is just another thing to deal with in an already busy day. The only way to get the theoretical cat back outside with its unsightly baggage is to put down the book.

Honestly, I don’t know why we indulge Americans in their twin obsessions – their organised religions and their esteemed leaders – because it can only end in disappointment unless you’ve drunk excessive quantities of the Kool-Aid that they ply their youth with at their secondary schools. The third strand of the holy trinity embodied in this book of course, and the one that beguiled the judges, is Saunders’ experimental technique.

As an Australian, I’ve thankfully been spared the kind of exposure to the evil of nationalistic exceptionalism that George Saunders evidently suffered in his formative years. What apart from early life trauma would compel a writer to slavishly pen a novel that merely repeats for the benefit of the undisciplined and converted a tired and desultory repertoire of truisms? As though you had distilled all the more mundane beliefs that are organised into memories in Donald Trump’s imagination, captured the resulting fluid in a bottle, slapped a label on it with ‘Literary Themes’ written on it in special cursive script made with an instrument of calligraphy, then sprinkled it on a pound cake that you call cordon bleu. Just sticking a fancy name on it doesn’t make it taste good.

I don’t have enough patience to troll through pages and pages of nonsense about some supposed afterlife just so that I can learn how good a man Abraham Lincoln actually was. If I want to read history, I’ll buy non-fiction. If I want to read philosophy, I’ll read something more substantial.

This is a miserly lemon imposed on the world by the Man Booker Prize judges. I should have learned my lesson though. A couple of years ago on the basis of it winning their prize I had a go at ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James, another “experimental” novel written in a wide range of different voices. To make it truly democratic, some of its voices are rendered in a barely comprehensible creole. You are forced to wade through a series of interwoven narratives as different people with different stories come together around one central event that won’t happen for another 200 pages. It is apparently a murder attempt involving the singer Bob Marley (another sacred cow for the world’s apparently inexhaustible supply of dull fools), but I never got that far. It was a true doorstopper, furthermore, making it supremely intolerable.

I don’t know where they get the judges for these literary prizes from.

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