George Saunders, renowned for his short fiction, will be releasing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo
, next year and I am quite excited about it. Here's what we have so far:
On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.
I was introduced to George Saunders' work through his last collection, The Tenth of December
, which I was lucky enough to get a review copy of a few years back. Let me tell you, I'm not all that big a fan of short fiction. I like the concept, but we don't get along and I rarely dedicate all that much time to it. That said, his collection blew me away. It was fantastic. My greatest shame is that I haven't yet read his previous collections, though I have at least a couple.
Here's my review of The Tenth of December
, which I will provide in full because the blog it was once posted to is now defunct:
The Tenth of December collects a meager ten stories from the strange pit of insanity that doubles as George Saunders’ mind. It is a slim collection and seems innocent enough from the outside, but the minute you open it the damn thing straps you down and demands you cancel your plans for the next howeverlong. Not to worry though, because there are only ten stories and it is easy to slip from one to the next until you turn that last page, realize you’re free to go, and fall into a melancholy with a curse at the unwanted end to your entrapment.
The Tenth of December lingers for a good while in the dark, eschewing the upbeat for a good measure of depression, but Saunders undercuts the bleak with a strong vein of subtle humor that, barring the tear-inducing ‘Sticks’, strikes through each of the stories. It is the sort of humor that stalks you for a ways before leaping out of the shadows to stab you in the funny bone before slinking off again. Rarely does the humor stick out, make itself obvious, but when it does it does so to great affect. The complaints about the Protocol Committee, aka The Three Horsemen of Anality, in “Escape from Spiderhead” contrasts against the uncomfortable direction the story begins to take just before.
Did I mention the strange pit of insanity? While the first three stories of the collection could be considered odd, especially “Sticks”, they never raised any flags. They were good stories–for the most part; I can hardly remember “Puppy” beyond a vague feeling of dislike–and had me hooked to the collection. Then I moved and lost the book for a couple months, only to pick it up again on the day it was released. I skipped these stories and began my journey anew with the aforementioned “Escape from Spiderhead” and things took an interesting twist.
Saunders’ breathless writing style lends a frantic energy to stories that grow increasingly strange and ridiculous the deeper you get into the collection. “Escape from Spiderhead” is almost normal, an SF-nal science experiment story that gets trips into a deep, dark hole part of the way through for a good dose of misery and horror. It is followed good dose of corporate horror in “Exhortation”, which is presented by way of a memo complete with all the morale-raising blather recognizable to anyone who has worked in such an environment. Then comes “Al Roosten”:
“So that’s why we’re raising money for LaffKidsOffCrack and their anti-drug clowns! […] Such as Mr. Bugout, who, in his classroom work, with a balloon, makes this thing that starts out a crack pipe and ends up as a coffin, which I think is so true!”
“Al Roosten” follows the titular character as he does bad deeds, deludes himself, and machine-guns his every thought at the reader without a hint of mercy. Saunders’ writing style, this energetic rambling, blends well with Al’s onslaught of thought to create this overwhelming deluge of ridiculous, bizarre, and crazy and an inadvertent humor wafts from it. I was cracking up even as I watched Al’s life crumble. The realization is as sobering and unsettling as “Home”, the story of a veteran returning home to a world that has moved on without him, to a family that has changed and dispersed, to a public that thanks him for his service on reflex. His home no longer exists, not this one, but there’s still the home of the last few years, the home where he did horrible things. There is plenty of crazy and ridiculous to go around there, but the humor is leeched by the topic. Probably for the best. “My Chivalric Fiasco” follows it, reintroducing us to the humor that was lost by way of a medicated chivalry.
“The Tenth of December” returns us to normal or as normal as this collection gets. Melancholy, imagination, and memory take lead in this story, doing their best to oust the humor and failing. The effort put into the characters and developing them into and beyond the victims of thin ice and bad timing makes this one of the better stories of the collection.
The Tenth of December served as a damn good introduction to George Saunders and is one of the few collections to break through my disinclination toward reading short fiction. It is a quick read, perhaps too quick a read, and worth every second and more spent reading it. Read it. Now.