The Gentleman Recommends: George Saunders (Again)

Posted on Monday, February 13, 2017 by Chris

If you’re reading this on the day it is posted or on the anniversary of the day it is posted (a safe bet as, delusions of grandeur aside, there can be little doubt that reading this post will join the pantheon of Valentine’s Day traditions), then tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and you will agree it is an appropriate time to prattle on about love. I’ll commence the prattling by saying this post is about the sweet, tender love a gentleman feels for one of our greatest writers. Rabid fans (are there any other kind?) of this series of blog posts will remember as clearly as their first kiss that the first author this gentleman recommended was George Saunders.

Lincoln in the Bardo book coverMy massive army of admirers may wonder: why recommend him again? Well, such is my passion for Saunders’ humane, hilarious and one-of-a-kind storytelling that I’ve been making passionate pitches to re-recommend him nearly every month. The editorial board has gently rejected my heartfelt pleas and pathetic attempts at bribery (“no one wants another chapbook of your excruciating poetry,” they say, lying), encouraging me to shine my blinding, career-boosting light on authors I haven’t previously spotlighted. But Saunders has a new book, and so I was able to convince them that it’s time to let this gentleman’s light shine on him again.

Before I set my sun to shining on this novel, allow me to remind you to read his collections of short stories — “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation” and “Tenth of December” — his collection of essays, “The Braindead Megaphone,” and the lovely commencement address he delivered at Syracuse University. If he hasn’t seduced into his fandom after your plunge into the strange, kind, warm waters of his prose, then I suspect your tastes are so massively different than mine that you’re not even reading this, so therefore it behooves me to stop addressing this nonexistent reader, which I will do now.

His new book is his first novel. It’s called “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It’s a fancy genius writer’s take on historical fiction, and it’s about, among other things, a brilliant president’s grief and a bunch of ghosts too scared and stubborn to move on from this realm, so they’re stuck in this one, in the same cemetery as Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased son.

The bulk of the novel exists as a chorus of the ghosts’ voices, and the text is even formatted so that a screenwriter wouldn’t have much trouble turning it into a script. We also get a mix of real and fake historical fiction concerning the period surrounding Willie Lincoln’s death. It’s awesome; read this for proof.

I closed my first breathless Saunders love fest with some of his brilliant words, and I’ll close this one that way too. Remember, though, that as wise and empathetic as the following passage is, “Lincoln in the Bardo” also has really good fart jokes.

“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom once came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”