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The Cold Comfort of George Saunders

In his first novel, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo,’ the master of modern dystopia turns his attention to Civil War ghosts. The result is odd, and unbearably sad, and Saunders’s best work to date.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

A writer’s goal should be to own one word, any word, as thoroughly as George Saunders owns the word super. Over the course of four beloved short-story collections and many other offbeat projects — a novella, a children’s book, a bound and illustrated Syracuse University convocation address, a sprawling greatest-nonfiction-hits compilation, a contribution to the Great Chipotle Bag Literary Renaissance of 2014 — he has bent super, and the very notion of “black comedy,” to his will. Grimly. Yet also cheerfully. Hilariously, even.

It’s hard to deal with. Saunders is just about as famous and rhapsodized as an American fiction writer can get without triggering a Franzenesque backlash. He got that way by expertly appealing to our better natures, often by making us feel much, much worse. He is the country’s sweet and sage and sympathetic uncle, reclining in a rocking chair that recently burst into flames. You’d call him a literary superhero, except if you’d read him, you’d know better.

Super, out of this guy’s mouth at various points in his bibliography, sits exactly halfway between slack-jawed wonder and bitter sarcasm. “The goat tastes super,” enthuses the poor guy working as a caveman impersonator in a shoddy historical-reenactment theme park. Another poor guy working another soul-killing job finally works up the courage to tell his parents’ oblivious ghosts that they’re dead, and they take it pretty well: “‘Feels super,’ Mom says.” When a doting grandpa briefly unplugs from a Black Mirror–esque near-future where everyone is inundated with personalized advertising at all times, he is forced to watch a “corrective video” called “Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate.” A gawky teenager, fantasizing about the highest possible praise he could receive from his stern and aloof parents, decides on, “‘Super job, Scout.’” The word comes up eight separate times in that novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, about a petty dictator who dismembers one of his enemies and displays the remains alongside a sign that reads, “Loyalty — It’s Super!”

Most of this is calculated to both crack you up and smash you into a billion pieces.

Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is out this week. Set in a Washington, D.C., graveyard in early 1862, it concerns the agonizing real-life death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, and is mostly narrated by ghosts, including Willie’s own. The audiobook version involves 166 voice actors, including such celebrities as Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, Don Cheadle, and Nick Offerman.

As a plain old book you read yourself, Bardo is profoundly odd, and tough to wrap your head around at first, and often unbearably sad. It’s the best thing he’s ever done. Super doesn’t appear once. The word doesn’t apply much to that period in American history, maybe. Nor does it particularly apply to this one, though Saunders would probably argue the precise opposite.

Darkness So Dark You Confuse It for the Light

“In the end, here’s how bad it got,” says yet another poor guy in yet another terrible situation, describing the exact moment of his death. “I used a corner of the desk.”

The best George Saunders stories are full-body cringes that somehow leave you warm and hopeful anyway, or at least more sympathetic, more open. Near fatally so. A gentle disembowelment. He’s easy to read and incredibly hard to stomach, a brutalist architect of whimsical despair. You laugh to drown out your own weeping.

Saunders’s first book of short stories, 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, mostly follows various downtrodden saps around various shoddy historical-reenactment theme parks, beset by various horrible bosses. (He’s the highbrow Michael Crichton.) The main characters who die at the end get off easy. “Nothing’s gone right for us since the day I crushed the boy with the wavemaker,” says one. “I’m not a bad guy,” insists another, who works for a tire-iron-wielding raccoon-removal outfit. “If only I could stop hoping.”

As a writer of sentences, Saunders is a wonder, silly and existentially wise, a Mark Twain for the age of LOLs. “All night I have bad dreams about severed hands,” yet another doomed schlub reports, after a grisly recent encounter with one. “I’m eating chili and a hand comes out of my bowl and gives me the thumbs-down.” Your punishment for cackling at this is the book’s longest and bleakest story, “Bounty,” in which the United States makes it legal to enslave people with disabilities, setting up a cross-country journey that unfolds like a Monty Python rewrite of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. “Tonight at last the nation votes,” it begins, the sense of doom immediate and suffocating.

These are chilly tales; the real suspense in a Saunders short story is whether it will feature a tiny, last-minute burst of levity or tenderness. Some are, some aren’t. The hell with this, you might conclude, no matter how impressed by the craftsmanship you might be. I’ve got enough problems.

So did he, from the sound of it. The main takeaway from CivilWarLand is “this guy must have really hated his day job.” Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas, and grew up in Chicago; he has both a degree in exploration geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines and an MFA from Syracuse, where he still teaches creative writing. The crucial event in his superhero origin story is from a time he was working as a field geophysicist in Sumatra; he went swimming in a river that, upon looking up, he realized was being crapped into by several hundred monkeys sitting on a pipeline overhead. Seven months of illness and delirium followed; his nascent literary career began in earnest thereafter. His fiction somehow got stranger than his truth.

His books also eventually got brighter — or at least he made the darkness easier to withstand. Pastoralia, from 2000, devastates with a single detail in the caveman-impersonator title story, concerning the caveman’s deathly ill kid back home. “When I thank him for bravely taking all his medications he always rests his head on my shoulder and says, No problem,” Saunders writes. “Only he can’t say his r’s. So it’s like: No pwoblem.”

I put the book down and took a walk.

In Persuasion Nation, from 2006, frets about pervasive advertising and reality TV, among other, far less frivolous things. “The Red Bow” traces the neighborhood-wide aftermath of a little girl being mauled to death by feral dogs; “93990,” formatted as notes from a morbid lab experiment involving monkeys, is hardly cheerier. What counts as improvement, in the author’s touch and in the reader’s mood, is that the horrible boss in the last story, “CommComm,” is deepened and partially humanized by his own tragic backstory: His wife had a stroke and requires full-time care, leaving him caustic and half crazed. You feel bad for the poor guy, even when he beats the story’s narrator to death with a tire iron — the dead guy goes on to briefly describe the afterlife, and seems to find it preferable.

This counts as a happy ending.

“My first-level approach is to try and make my characters as much like me as I can,” Saunders explained in a Q&A tacked onto the end of his 2013 collection, Tenth of December. “And then make things go badly and see how they do.” His reasoning: “Cruelty is real — and it does its victims (and we are all its victims, to varying degree) no good to pretend that all thoughts of cruelty are extraneous, or gratuitous.”

For a simpler, cruder explanation, consult “Fox 8,” a 2013 Amazon Kindle Single written from the perspective of a fox that learns to read and write in broken English, and also learns about the cruelty of humans, what with our habitat-demolishing shopping malls and gleeful penchant for murdering his fellow foxes. This particular little guy survives, but remains badly shaken, deeply cynical. “If you Yumans wud take one bit of advise from a meer Fox?” the fox writes. (Seriously.) “By now I know that you Yumans like your Storys to end hapy? If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser.”

Delightful Absurdity As a Balm for Terrible Poverty

A salient question: Why bother? Why subject yourself to despair this exquisite and absolute? Because you also get sentences like this one: “‘Show your cock,’ she says, and dies again.”

“Sea Oak” appears in Pastoralia, and it concerns a male stripper at Joysticks, an aviation-themed strip club. Sea Oak is the dead-end apartment complex (“there’s no sea and no oak”) where he lives with his sister and her kid, his cousin and her kid, and his Aunt Bernie. The boneheaded sister and niece (“They debate how many sides a triangle has”) spend most of their time watching trashy TV shows like How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen. (Saunders hates reality TV so much that he’s always suggesting new programs, from Kill the Ho to America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers to I, Gropius.) The neighborhood is prowled by a vicious street gang called Big Scary Dawgz; a stray bullet knocks the bill off a duck-shaped baby walker. Someone finds a pair of brass knuckles in the kiddie pool.

Then the apartment gets robbed, and dear, sweet, docile Aunt Bernie dies of fright. They bury her in a cheap coffin, which is promptly defaced, whereupon Aunt Bernie reappears in her burial outfit and is no longer dear, sweet, or docile. “Sit the fuck down,” is the first thing she says. “You, mister, are going to start showing your cock,” is the second.

She goes on to detail her plan for upward mobility. The narrator had already resolved to move his family somewhere, at least. “It’s the freaking American way,” he’d been told. “You start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole. And finally maybe you get a mansion.”

Whether or not this plan proves successful is beside the point. Saunders writes a great deal about the nobility (and ignobility) of poor people in America, and the rampant absurdity and operatic desolation that often force them further downward. “There comes that phase in life when, tired of losing, you decide to stop losing, and continue losing,” he writes in “Christmas,” a biographical-seeming In Persuasion Nation tale about a roofing crew’s morbid holiday party. “Then you decide to really stop losing, and continue losing.”

Saunders himself started winning, eventually. His fourth short-story collection, Tenth of December, was preemptively declared in a glowing New York Times Magazine piece to be “the best book you’ll read this year.” (The piece appeared on January 3, 2013.) Salient phrases include “more or less universally regarded as a genius” and “the writer for our time.”

Tenth of December is, indeed, the total package as his short fiction goes, whether you know the drill or not. (You see that there’s a story called “Puppy” and think, “Oh, super.”) The doomed corner-of-the-table gentleman is the star of “Escape From Spiderhead,” Saunders’s best sci-fi conceit; the narrator has been imprisoned and forced into service as a human guinea pig for various new drugs with names like Verbaluce, Vivistif, LuvInclyned, Docilryde, and, most unpleasantly, Darkenfloxx. But there are still laugh lines: “I noticed that Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised.”

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” seems to be pulling us back to earth, to universal upward-mobility concerns. “Do not really like rich people,” the plainspoken narrator writes, “as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate.” His goal, his prayer, is simple and sublime: “Lord, give us more. Give us enough.” It takes awhile to learn who the Semplica Girls are, and how they’ve come, in this universe, to stand as a rich person’s ultimate symbol of wealth and happiness. It’s Saunders’s loopiest, most disturbing image yet. When the narrator finally gets Semplica Girls of his own, his joy is palpable: “Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living.” He’d won. The fight was over. Saunders might’ve thought so, too.

The Bogeyman Too Real to Invent

It is near impossible to read The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil in 2017 and not think of Donald Trump. This despite the fact that all the characters are weirdly shaped aliens, their territory mostly divided between Outer Horner and Inner Horner, the latter country so tiny only one of its seven permanent residents can stand in it at a time. Phil, you see, is a furious, powerless Outer Hornerite who grows to despise the Inner Hornerites for desecrating his beloved homeland.

He ascends to power.

Things get ridiculous, and ridiculously terrible. Certain phrases pop out now: “Special Border Activities Coordinator.” “My innovative Border Area Improvement Initiative.” “Losers.” A national drinking song with the title “Large, Large, Large, Beloved Land (If Not the Best, Why So Very Dominant?)” Phil hires a couple bodyguards who destroy whatever or whoever he tells them to destroy. Fundamentally decent Outer Hornerites are flustered and corrupted, cowed into signing Phil’s various edicts without reading them, facing backward.

All of this is delivered with a bedtime-story innocuousness that nicely undercuts the dread. (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Saunders’s actual children’s book, does the same trick with fantastical Lane Smith illustrations and way less dread. Its moral: Be nice to your neighbors, especially the phenomenally mean ones.) The key word in the novella’s title is Brief; cooler heads eventually prevail. You’re tempted to dismiss the whole thing as overkill, metaphor-wise, until you realize it was published in 2005.

This keeps happening to Saunders: He shrewdly diagnoses a societal problem early, but underestimates the enormity of it by a factor of approximately 8 billion. The Braindead Megaphone, his 2007 essay/nonfiction collection, is dominated by the title story, which laments how our national media got so birdbrained, how sensationalist coverage of the O.J. trial presaged the sensationalist coverage of the Iraq War run-up, why a guy holding a megaphone comes to dominate and ultimately ruin a dinner party, why everyone’s just yelling half-formed opinions at one another now, etc. This book came out 10 years ago; this essay is, again, both startlingly prescient and horribly outdated.

Megaphone is otherwise a mixed bag of wan dad-humor pieces, heartfelt essays on various literary heroes (Donald Barthelme, Esther Forbes, Mark Twain), and pretty great travel-journalism pieces for GQ and The New Yorker. He does a Dubai junket and returns with a bracing, gorgeous anecdote about watching Arab children encounter snow for the first time; he drives along the U.S.-Mexican border and breaks bread with Minutemen and undocumented but unbowed new Americans alike. A decade and change later, he was thus ready for the ultimate challenge in liberal-based sociological empathy.

Which is to say that in spring and summer 2016, Saunders went to a bunch of Trump rallies and wrote about it for The New Yorker. He became the 50,000th person to do this, out of an eventual 350,000, though arguably he ranks among the most famous; his resulting piece is tender and troubling and great, though not quite the best in its class. (Patricia Lockwood for the New Republic is the gold standard, ramping up the folly in a way that only multiples the tenderness.)

Saunders unfurls reams of beautiful sentences (on Trump: “He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie”) long past the point where beautiful sentences sufficed. His diagnosis: We’re all divided now politically into LeftLand and RightLand, trapped in our own separate bubbles with our own separate belief systems and facts, a notion well spoken but long since already said. You can sense that he’s attempting a biopsy that he plainly fears is an autopsy. Words don’t fail him, but his imagination nearly does.

He keeps fighting. He mixes it up with pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters alike, both sides endearing and exasperating in equal measure. He stumbles into some startling anecdotes; he gets some startling quotes, some articulate and some not, from both sides. (“Hey, I’m not paying for your shit, I’m not paying for your college, so you go to Hell, go to work, go to Hell, suck a dick.”) He concludes that most Americans are fundamentally decent, and the American experiment is now fundamentally imperiled. You can feel, for the first time, in a career full of masterfully wrought despair both cartoonish and visceral, that the author is finally despairing too. He knows what to say. But he’s less certain about what, now, to do.

Infinite Compassion and Finite Jest

In 2014, Saunders underwent another Famous Literary Man rite of passage: He published Congratulations, by the Way, an ultra-slim, illustrated version of a convocation speech he’d given at Syracuse the year before. It’s a fine gift for college graduates at $15 or less in hardcover; it can be comfortably read in five minutes. His message: Success is an unreliable and unsatisfying metric, so use kindness instead. David Foster Wallace will likely always be the master of this particular micro-genre, but it’s a fine effort nonetheless.

Now, another Famous Literary Man milestone, only a couple of decades late: Saunders finally wrote a novel. Lincoln in the Bardo is a genuinely weird experience, even coming from a guy who specializes in genuinely weird experiences. It’s wholly devoted to its early–Civil War setting and vernacular, which means he forfeits the very contemporary oh-gosh-geez-super dialogue style that he clearly loves, and has made him so beloved.

Not that he abandons all his tricks. We begin, very much in authorial character, with a tragic death: Willie Lincoln, Abraham’s third son, succumbing to typhoid at 11 years old. Willie’s ghost awakens in the graveyard, stunned and disoriented, unaware that he’s dead. Presently, a distraught Abe visits the crypt, pulls Willie from his coffin, and holds him close, weeping and unaware that Willie’s ghost is standing right there next to him, furious at being ignored.

I put the book down and took a longer walk.

The story that follows is narrated by other ghosts — noblemen and paupers, slaves and slavemasters, the erudite and the fantastically coarse. (That celebrity-stuffed audiobook will be a hoot, actually.) It all reads more like theater than fiction, though you never forget who’s running the show, what with his inimitable mixture of warmth and frigidity, the terrestrial and the fantastical. Here, Willie’s new neighbors complain to him about cemetery visitors:

The Mr. Sheep-Dumpling / many-eyed man stuff would take too long to explain. Turns out nobody in this graveyard quite realizes that they’re dead — some refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes,” and most are impatiently waiting for their loved ones to bring them home. It’s a self-willed purgatory of sorts; we get brief glimpses of what appear to be heaven and hell, the latter confined to one paragraph, but it’s still plenty. There’s a sense of wide-eyed wonder about the whole thing that almost but doesn’t quite suppress the all-consuming grief; I considered crying for the entire span of 300-plus pages but never did, though I couldn’t say whether that makes me toughened up or just numbly inured.

But it’s the characters that stick with you, the dozens of backstories and speaking styles and dispositions, full-scale tragicomedies often distilled into a mere handful of lines. Most of them in radical opposition to one another. All of them distinctly American. Most early Bardo reviews lament that Saunders inadvertently chose this moment to go fully historical, that this is not the book we needed from him right now. But it’s nonetheless the first piece of art, in any medium, that proved engrossing enough to distract me from our current moment, for whole minutes at a time. It argues that our country is a messy, ugly, often callous place whose confused denizens are nonetheless still capable of amazed and amazing grace; it holds up our leaders as flawed humans who can still, in both our and their darkest moments, conjure up our best selves. This place is a mess, Saunders argues. But we’ve been through worse and come out better. He gives us more. He gives us enough. It is, to repeat, the best thing he’s ever done.

One ghost in particular sticks with me. This right here is one hell of a sentence:

Stuff like this makes you want to find something, someone to soothe; it makes you hope someone or something finds you, and returns the favor. George Saunders is an odd candidate for that role: He unnerves people for a living, masterfully, unmercifully. The world has lately become a weirder and darker place, as if rising to his challenge. But that’s only part of his challenge. Lincoln in the Bardo describes the past so vividly that it gives us a blueprint for the future: The better angels of our nature are still out there, and in there, somewhere.