Thursday, May 20, 2021

George Saunders' LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, reviewed by Henry Stanton

There are many ugly and beautiful things in Lincoln In the Bardo.  The beauty is unequivocally breathtaking.  The following clip sings (as do many segments) and is more poetry than prose (come to think of it, what IS the difference):

"Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. 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.”

The structure of the book, short bursts of captivating prose, though not an original form, is artfully contrived.  Characterization is complex and curious and revelatory.  The book is absurd and hysterically funny.  George Saunders is a virtuoso writer.  I love his work.

But the ugly in the book is difficult to consume, is intentionally perverse of course, but is as tough to sustain in review as a Bosch painting.  After a while, it’s just too gross to look through.  (Though maybe I am deceiving myself – I read through the book in one glorious rush).  Perhaps, it’s just too gross to consider the detail in retrospect.  Such revulsion must be typical of confronting hell, and I guess also of The Bardo, though what can we really know of these obscure and anachronistic locations.    People are stuck and the objects that reveal their paralysis are distended and bloated to the point of the grotesque.   Please, I have no interest in seeing your preternaturally engorged penis that is more a growth or a goiter than the alluring staff of life.   Keep it in your pants!  And, that god-awful judgement scene.  Is this Saunders putting on his red conical cap and lighting the reading sinners among us aflame?   Is George indulging in his own prurient auto-da-fe?   Maybe not, maybe its just part of The Reverend Early Thomas’ own Bardo-Kinesis, but I, for one, am really tired of these relentless, tiresome, merciless judgement scenes – exhausted by them.  I have read The Inferno and Portrait of the Artist about 10 times each.  I don’t need to terrify the little boy in me anymore.

I suppose I am being too literal - The Bardo is more of a metaphorical treatment of our own shortcomings and misgivings here on earth.  Really?  Can’t it be about what happens next?  Don’t we all crave some clarity.  Shouldn’t we be allowed a clear glimpse of heaven.  Or maybe just the in-between and the promise it dangles in front of us.  

I confess.  I really want to go to heaven.  And, I want it to be personal.  I want all the good people and pets that I have lived with (and through) to appear in my sacred space with me.  I want to look on the faces of vast mountain ranges; to walk through the pampas in the body of a beautiful girl brushing the heads of grasses with my palms; I want to run away with gazelles and after with cheetah; I want to read poems; to sing; to play an instrument fluently.  Need I go on.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved and still love this book.  I have a fluid, intimate rating system that places and replaces reads in my top 10.  It is kind of a Bardo of its own.   Ulysses has stayed there for about 40 years; The Road is in there; and so now is Lincoln In the BardoLIB is about #3 or so.  But, I do abhor the Saunder’s vision of The Bardo.  The notion of planting myself there makes me shiver and convulse.  In contrast, as a counterpoint, I am overwhelmed by the gorgeousness, the purity, the outright truth of the book’s masterful culmination – which is a possession, of Lincoln, and suggests that perhaps interventions of the cathartic and redeeming kind can occur and can guide us or coerce us closer to heaven.  Heaven here on earth.  Heaven on the far side of Bardo.  Whichever.  If Lincoln In the Bardo perpetuates that motion.  Then I am all in.

Author Bio:  George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of Decemberwhich was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

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