[Yes, I know. I am about three weeks late on my compilation of books read in February. That’s what four nor’easters and a trip to Boston will do to one. At least, though, I am posting it before we are into April!]
Month of Books: February 2018
The Past (2016) – Tessa Hadley
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) – George Saunders
The 50 Funniest American Writers According to Andy Borowitz (2011) an anthology
Disquiet, Please! More Humor Writing from the New Yorker (2008) an anthology
The two novels in February could not have been more different from each other. The Past was Hadley’s seventh novel with echoes not only of her earlier novels (see January’s Month of Books) but also of other novels I’ve been reading by British women, right down to setting the story in another deteriorating old house in Cornwall populated by family members in contention! While in this one the narrative switched back and forth between the present and the past as it related the stories of the family members, Hadley still focused on what one critic called “crystallizing the atmosphere of ordinary life” – once more, not exactly a rave review, hinting at stasis
In contrast, Saunders’ novel was in constant motion, teeming with everything but the ordinary.
First, I have to confess that I was not one of those who rushed to buy this book. (My copy is the paperback edition.) I had never been a fan of Saunders’ short stories and read a couple only because a dear friend suggested that I should. Second, I was very annoyed that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize. I am allergic to change. I still hadn’t gotten over being peeved that the prize is no longer just the Booker. Then they went and opened it up to writers outside of the British Commonwealth! If you are going to have a national kind of prize, then keep it national. We have our National Book Award, they should have the Booker. Somehow it feels diluted, less special. (“They’ll give that award to anyone now. Even an American!” Sniff.)
I also have to confess my intellectual failings (once again) and admit that I didn’t know what “bardo” meant. In addition, I managed to hear the title as Lincoln at the Bardo, which made it sound as though Lincoln was frequenting some sleazy dive. My brain created a mash-up vision of a bar where all the waitresses looked like Bridget Bardot. Then I looked up the definition: “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” That made me equally uncomfortable. I feared the book might be some serious version of “Lincoln vs. the Zombies,” and I thought that would be a terrible thing to read.
Nonetheless, I started the book, though remained skeptical for the first 12 pages or so. Since I hadn’t paid close attention to the reviews, I didn’t know the basic premise, which is: Lincoln in such grief at the death of his son Willie that he visits the mausoleum where Willie’s body has been taken following the funeral. A cast of characters who are themselves in the bardo, between their earthly lives and whatever was next, witnesses this extraordinary event. Not having this context, I found the first exchange between the two lead characters in the bardo, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, puzzling. What’s a “sick-box”? Several (short) chapters followed that were nothing more than quotes from various primary sources who were at the White House at a gala event the night Willie died and various historians who have written about the same. This seemed to me a pretty easy way to write a book: just create pages of quotes from other people!
But I soon was caught up in the extraordinary interplay that Saunders created to allow us (1) to see multiple human perspectives ( often contradicting each other) on a real event and (2) to experience a community of not quite ghosts whose time on earth took place in different eras and whose own witnessing of Lincoln’s grief brings out their compassion and their best (and in some instances worst) selves.
Politics and pathos. Factions spar in the White House at the beginning of the Civil War while the depth of Lincoln’s loss is described by those around him (the living and the dead). Humor and humanity. The characters’ “dead” bodies make visible the characters’ traits in life: one character always enjoyed observing all around him so in the bardo he has multiple eyes to take in everything, while another was somewhat randy in life so in the bardo has to maneuver with a hugely outsized member.
I don’t want to say much more, as part of my delight in this book was my own dawning of appreciation for what Saunders was accomplishing, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. He has woven an intricate tapestry of history, stitched through with a fantastical shadow world, suspended beyond the grave but right there beside the president. Full of wonders and great heart, the book ultimately demonstrates that when spirits, no matter how different, work together, a miracle can happen. I savored every minute of reading it.
The two humor anthologies were fun incidental reading. Not surprisingly, some pieces appeared in both collections. Though a fan of Andy Borowitz, I was disappointed with some of his choices. The pieces in the New Yorker collection were all terrific. What was surprising was how some of the older pieces in the Borowitz could have been written today. I recommend Mark Twain’s “The Presidential Candidate.” Read it on Google Docs for free.