Strange Weather

strange weatherJoe Hill prefaces this collection of four novellas by saying that the novella is a wonderful form. It’s long enough to be really meaty and provide for depth of characterization, but short enough to be lean, and to demand that any extra prose be shaved off. He gives several examples — True Grit and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, among others — and he confides that since his own most recent work (The Fireman and NOS4A2) are very long novels, he wanted to write something shorter, just to stay in shape.

These four stories are quite different from each other, and I think they vary in their success. My favorite was Loaded, followed closely by Snapshot. My least favorite by quite a long way was Aloft, leaving Rain somewhere in the middle. But all of them were extremely readable, sometimes compulsively, un-put-downably so, and after I finished, I was dying to talk about them with someone. Joe Hill is quite a writer these days.

I am almost unable to restrain myself from saying that Loaded started off with a bang. The entire story is about guns: America’s inexplicable, lurid, total obsession with them in the year of our Lord 2018, and how that affects our lives, our safety, our choices, our children. Hill begins with an all-too-familiar story: a young, unarmed black man is killed by a police officer who has mistaken him for a criminal and the CD in his hand for a knife. That murder echoes two decades later, when that young man’s sister Ayesha has become a journalist. Her life and training make her suspicious when George Kellaway, a mall security guard, steps in and saves the day during a shooting. It turns out she was right to be suspicious, and things go from bad to much, much worse. Hill deals with many aspects of gun culture: the “good guy with a gun” notion; guns and minorities; police culture; legal loopholes that allow people who shouldn’t have guns to get them; mental health and suicide, and plenty more. His politics are definitely on display here, and as we slowly get to know Kellaway better, it’s both extremely tense (and I mean extremely) and pretty pointed.

The others are more standard horror novellas. Snapshot is told from the point of view of a teenage boy who finds himself tangled up with the Phoenician, who can take away your memories by taking a kind of… magic?… Polaroid photo of you. This is a pretty straightforward premise, but Hill does a startlingly good job of characterization in the story, and I was deeply rooting for all the characters (except the Phoenician, of course.) I really enjoyed this one, and it felt maybe the most complete as a novella. Aloft finds a young man in unrequited love jumping out of a plane onto a cloud that isn’t exactly a cloud. This one was the least successful, in my view: I couldn’t see the point and I didn’t think the character ever saw the point either. I wanted to know what happened, but when it did, I wasn’t convinced. This one could have been a short story, easily. Finally, Rain tells what happens when a terrorist (but who, and where?) seeds the sky with chemicals, and rain comes down as hard, killing, needlelike crystals. This story was part post-apocalypse (and it takes place between Boulder and Denver, so a nice nod to The Stand) and part mystery, as the main character slowly deduces who is responsible for the end of the world. It’s chilling and enjoyable.

A note. There are certain horror authors (and maybe just authors in general) who use “fat” as a shorthand for “evil.” Hill uses “fat” as a descriptor. He has fat characters, but they’re just fat. His teenage narrator in Snapshot is fat, and he’s lonely, but he’s not lonely because he’s fat, he’s just lonely and fat. Later, he gets thin, but he doesn’t get thin because he gets friends or because he learns to love himself: quite the reverse. I just… I appreciate that, even though it’s a small thing.

I think now the only thing I haven’t read of Hill’s (besides his comic series) is Horns, and I have that in my library bag. He’s a talented writer — fun, fast-paced, scary, and excellent at providing tension. And I’ll tell you now, he’s not nearly as predictable about his happy endings as his father is…

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Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 3 Comments

The Fortnight in September

Every year, the Stevens family spends two weeks at the seaside in Bognor. The trip involves a series of rituals — they always take the same train, stay in the same boarding house, and engage in many of the same activities. It’s a routine that is also a break from routine. This book by R.C. Sheriff is simply a straightforward chronicle of their yearly holiday ritual.

Each member of the family experiences the fortnight a little differently. Mrs. Stevens is not as fond of the sea as her husband and three children, and they sometimes press her into activities she doesn’t enjoy. But she loves the silent evenings when she doesn’t have any of her usual chores to do and can just sit quietly while her youngest son, Ernie, is in bed and the rest of the family is out walking. Mr. Stevens, on the other hand, revels in almost every aspect of the holiday and has, over the years, developed lots of strategies for drawing out the most enjoyment possible. This starts with choosing precisely the right train car and continues with the balancing of family time together and apart and includes such important decision as to whether to rent a beach shelter—an option made more sensible now that the eldest son and daughter, Dick and Mary, have earned a little money to contribute.

Although the holiday is a joyous one for everyone, including the reluctant Mrs. Stevens, there are hints of melancholy around the edges of the story. Of course, there’s the passing of the fortnight itself, and Sherriff does a beautiful job of describing what it’s like to ease into holiday mode and then to reach the distressing point where you know there’s more time behind you than ahead. And then there’s the fact that time off means time to reflect on things that are making you unhappy — for the Stevens family, these reflections create peace and resolve and good feelings, but its not always clear whether those feelings will last.

Then, maybe saddest of all, is the worry that these September holidays may not last much longer. Both Dick and Mary are getting older and may want to do their own things. And Mrs. Huggett, their host, is showing signs of age, as is her boarding house, “Seaview.” How many more years will their home away from home be available?

However, despite these whispers of sadness down the road, the book is mostly about joy in the moment and how people find it. I found a lot of joy in the reading of it.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 9 Comments

The Street of Crocodiles

street of crocodilesI’ve had Bruno Schulz on the periphery of my reading for a long time. Lots of readers I like have mentioned him: John Crowley, Cynthia Ozick, China Miéville, and many more. He was a Polish writer from the provincial town of Drohobych, one of the great Polish-language stylists. He died during the second World War, shot and killed by a Nazi while walking home to Drohobych Ghetto with a loaf of bread. He wasn’t much of a traveler and had spent almost all his life in his home town. That meant that most of his friends were also killed by the Nazis, and his letters and unfinished works were lost without a trace. Only what he’d already published remains.

The Street of Crocodiles is a collection of linked short stories about the protagonist’s childhood. But these are the oddest, strangest, most fantastical, most unexpected — Each one begins like Proust, all reminiscence. The language is beautiful, even in translation:

In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.

But then, strange things begin to happen. The father (a weird creator-figure, constantly battling the housemaid Adela and usually losing) decides to import rare birds’ eggs to hatch in the attic:

Placed in cotton wool, in baskets, this dragon brood lifted blind, walleyed heads on thin necks, croaking voicelessly from dumb throats. My father would walk along the shelves, dressed in a green baize apron like a gardener in a hothouse of cacti, and conjure up from nothingness these blind bubbles, pulsating with life, these impotent bellies receiving the outside world only in the form of food, these growths on the surface of life, climbing blindfold toward the light.

The father gives a long metaphysical treatise on matter, which comes to the conclusion that murder can be meritorious and that tailors’ dummies are to be treated with the same respect as human beings. He winds up:

“Am I to conceal from you,” he said in a low voice, “that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion, singing to the luckless creature endless lullabies on winter nights?”

Later, the protagonist’s uncle (a different one from the rubber-tubing one) is transformed into some kind of an alarm bell. There are creatures in the wallpaper. The protagonist is sent on a nighttime errand and finds his way to the “cinnamon shops” — fantastical shops that sell “Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calophony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in jars, microscopes, binoculars, and, most especially, strange and rare books, old folio volumes full of astonishing engravings and amazing stories.” But the errand turns dreamlike, moving from the shops to a school to a cab ride in the snow, and the young man loses his way. The Street of Crocodiles — the unsavory street in town — turns out to be a paper mock-up, made so that their provincial town will look more like a big city.

Am I giving you some notion of this book? Rooted in memory, events quickly become something quite other. And the other is not always pleasant. The transformations in Schulz can be beautiful, wondrous, or funny, but can equally often be menacing or humiliating. I never knew what to expect. It’s utterly original.

I was completely engrossed by this brief book. Why doesn’t it make top-ten lists of best fantasy? And the prose (translated by Celina Wieniewska) is just astonishing. It was like reading Marc Chagall: bright, weird, beautiful, goats floating by for a reason you only understand later. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 1 Comment

Blue Horses Rush In

blue horsesThis is a short book of poems and stories by Navajo author Luci Tapahonso. I found it completely enjoyable to read in a quiet, personal way: it feels as if Tapahonso is talking to me, telling me about her experiences, musing a little bit, taking me with her as she goes about her day or thinks about anecdotes or connections she’s making. When the book was finished, I was sorry to find myself alone in my own world again.

The book begins with “Shisóí,” a poem about her granddaughter, She-Who-Brings-Happiness. An excerpt:

She was born on a bright fall afternoon,

already chubby, and quivering with wetness.

She gasped for air, and for her mother’s warm body.

Her name is She-Who-Brings-Happiness because upon being carried,

she instinctively settles into the warmth

of your shoulder and neck.

She nestles, like a little bird, into the contours of your body.

All you can say is, “She’s so sweet, I don’t know what to do.”

And we smile, beaming with pleasure.

There are stories of everyday life: Tapahonso comes from Shiprock, New Mexico but now lives in Kansas, so she tells about going to visit her family. There’s a wonderful explanation of how long it takes to leave the reservation to get on her way back to Kansas, because everyone recognizes her “white-person” rental car and stops her for a chat — it’s not a Ford or Chevy pickup. There’s another story about how she was involved in an archeological dig to uncover some Pueblo ruins, and how that made her think about the connections between the past and the future: the Kiowa call it “throwing prayers” for seven generations. She explains about the Navajo love of mutton, and how if someone is going home to the reservation, they’ll bring mutton back in a cooler on the airplane for anyone in their community — “just a little piece of backbone is okay.” There’s a hilarious anecdote about when she was just married and her friend bought a used orange Karmann-Ghia that needed all kinds of repairs and wouldn’t start again if she stopped it.

I have read a reasonable (not exhaustive) amount of Native American fiction by this time, and of course so much of it deals with racism and oppression and sometimes the feeling that it’s hard to belong to both — or either — of two cultures. This book… is not that. I think there might be one white person mentioned in passing in this book. It’s about the everyday experience of being a modern Navajo woman, surrounded by family, history, tradition, language, and tenderness. Of course bad things still happen — there’s a story about the time Tapahonso’s 14-year-old daughter ran away, for instance, and even worse things. But those are life events, and she talks about how she deals with them in the context of family and community.

Tapahonso was the first poet laureate of the Navajo nation. These poems and stories are so straightforward and so gentle that I was surprised at how immersive I found them, and how much I was touched.

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Hopscotch

hopscotchHopscotch is a strange, surreal Argentinian novel from 1966 by Julio Cortázar (translated brilliantly by Gregory Rabassa.) I’ll try to give you some sense of what it’s about and what the form is like, but it won’t be easy: Cortázar was trying to write an antinovel, to break down formal structures and do something new, so there isn’t much to compare it to, or at least not much that I’ve read.

I should say right off that it’s possible to read the book in two different orders. You can read it straight through from beginning to end (which is what I did), but Cortázar also gives a different order of chapters at the beginning: 73-1–2-116–3-84-4-71-5-81-74-6-7-8-93 and so forth. He also gives you the number of the next chapter you’re supposed to read at the end of each chapter, sort of like choose your own adventure, only there isn’t a choice. You can see that the beginning narrative chapters are still in numerical order (1, 2, 3, etc) but are interleaved with later chapters in what seems like, but probably isn’t, random order. Now that I’ve read the entire book, I think this “hopscotch” order would be just as interesting and satisfying to read, and maybe even more so, but a huge hassle what with flipping back and forth.

Okay. So the book is about (or “about”) an Argentinian man named Horacio Oliveira who is living in Paris with his friends. They are all poor and artistic, they all drink and smoke a lot, they all discuss philosophy all night, the usual deal. Oliveira is sleeping with one of the women, who he calls La Maga, and who (unusually for this sort of crowd) has a baby son. La Maga isn’t an artistic or philosophical type. She asks a lot of very naive questions and struggles to understand the answers, which alternately provokes tenderness and exasperation in her friends. Oliveira knows that pity and love are literary tropes and probably just a lot of chemicals in the brain, so he tries hard not to get attached to her, but he slips up from time to time, until a truly horrifying event separates them and sends him back to Argentina. There, he finds a couple of old friends and a job, and tries to understand the trauma that happened in Paris.

So much for the narrative, such as it is. But this book has a narrative the way Zendaya had ropes in The Greatest Showman. The chapters flash around this thin line, doing whatever they please. There’s a long chapter in which the characters discuss jazz, and the chapter is structured like a jazz session, where different topics come and riff off of each other and drift off and solo for awhile but stay on the same general theme. There’s a (surprisingly long!) chapter where two different stories are interleaved line-for-line, so if you want to read one story you must read lines 1,3,5, etc and if you want to read the other you must read lines 2.4, 6, etc and by the time you’re done with both you realize they touched at several points. There are several chapters where an author in the story is writing about writing, and it’s clear it’s in some way about this book itself. There are chapters that are just quotations, or long citations from real or imaginary sources. There are chapters written in a kind of made-up Esperanto (here is just one place where the brilliance of Rabassa’s translation comes into play.) There are chapters that are only footnotes to footnotes to footnotes (take that, David Foster Wallace.) There are chapters of imaginary memoirs of people who aren’t even characters in the story.

It must be clear that this is a very experimental novel. I’ve read a lot of experimental novels (I’ve read plenty of Surrealists, and it looks to me like Cortázar was heavily influenced by them) and the oddest thing about this book is that it is so long. It’s over 550 pages! Experimental prose is usually quite short — it’s difficult to keep up the bursts of inspiration, the knocking down walls, for more than a couple of hundred pages at most. But the thing is, this book is really good. Not only is it interesting in terms of characters (though that sometimes flags), it’s just brilliant in its use of language and form. Chapters are mostly short, and each one is so different, that I kept reading even though the narrative was so slender.

The motif of hopscotch comes up several times in the book — early on, in Paris, and then again in Argentina when Oliveira has a job in a lunatic asylum. The idea seems to be that you move the stone with your toe, you hop, but it’s quite difficult to get to “heaven” — the final square. Whether this is a literary motif or an emotional one I am not completely certain. What I can say is that this book was deeply strange, and I’m glad I read it.

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Raven Stratagem

raven stratagemEarlier this year, I read Yoon Ha Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit, on Other Jenny’s recommendation. I found it dense and difficult — Lee doesn’t exactly cosset his readers — but in the end, I found the combination of power, politics, and personality irresistible. The ethical problem of a centuries-old dead general (Shuos Jedao) possessing the body of a captain (Kel Cheris) injected with “formation instinct” that compels her to be loyal — let alone all the other problems of hierarchy, tyranny, strategy, determinism, and the reliable narrator — grabbed me.

So I read Raven Stratagem, which picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off. I was expecting this book to suffer from some Middle Book problems — perhaps to have more exposition about the Hexarchate, or about Jedao’s past, or anyway about something (Ninefox Gambit is very low on exposition.) But in fact, Lee opens the book up to a new array of characters so we can see the prickly, gruesome problem from new angles. There is Kel Brezan, a crashhawk (a Kel on whom formation instinct didn’t take) who’s on a mission to take Jedao down; Shuos Mikodez, the sardonically intelligent Hexarch of the Shuos, who has known Jedao longer than almost anyone else and may have guessed what he’s doing; and General Kel Khiruev, who is reluctantly in Jedao’s service after he commandeers her swarm (after all, being centuries old, he is the most senior of any imaginable officer.) We, like they, are asked to guess Jedao’s motives and strategies as he fights to subvert and destroy not only the enemy Hafn but the structure of his own empire’s government. We, like they, are asked to determine when personal choice is superfluous and when it is crucial.

Lee is so good at detail. I was simultaneously fascinated and chilled by descriptions of the Hafn drones (?) — ships that derive their energy from symbiotic relationships between sleeping children in caskets and birds or flowers or trees. In this book, we get a better sense of the different factions, and of the way the Hexarchate has dominated and tortured its people. And all the details go together; nothing is forgotten. Pieces of the story that began as personal quirks in Ninefox Gambit are central to the plot in Raven Stratagem. Does he keep spreadsheets? It’s kind of unbelievable.

This isn’t the sort of speculative fiction I usually read, and to be honest, I did still have trouble keeping track of what was happening in this one, though not to the same degree as with Ninefox Gambit. But it was just so good. I wanted to know more. I still do. I will definitely read the next one, whenever it comes out, and more, whenever he writes it.

 

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

The Summer Book

Six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother, and sometimes Sophia’s father, are spending the summer together on an island, almost entirely to themselves. A friend comes and stays for a bit, they acquire a cat, they wander the island, they trespass on a neighbor’s land, they bicker and complain, and they give and receive quiet comfort.

In this short 1972 novel, Tove Jansson presents the story of this summer as a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected. In fact, I think the arrangement of the stories is more thematic than chronological. Although the book begins with the start of summer and ends with August, there are some points where the story, such as it is, seems to move back in time. It creates a sort of languid, drifting effect, where there’s no specific plan or destination. This summer is just about being, taking events as they come.

The writing, translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, is detailed in its descriptions of the island and weighted with feeling — although some reading between the lines is needed to find the depths. For instance, here’s what happens to Sophia and her grandmother’s project of gathering and carving things to create a “magic forest”:

One morning Sophia found a perfect skull of some large animal — found it all by herself. Grandmother thought it was a seal skull. They hid it in a basket and waited all day until evening. The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded in over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet. They put the skull in the magic forest, and it lay on the ground and gleamed with all its teeth.

Suddenly Sophia began to scream.

“Take it away!” she screamed. “Take it away!”

Grandmother picked her up and held her but thought it best not to say anything. After a while Sophia went to sleep. Grandmother sat and thought about building a matchbox house on the sandy beach by the blueberry patch behind the house. They could build a dock and make windows out of tinfoil.

Sophia’s mother has just died, a fact that is mentioned almost as a aside, just as the explanation for her being at the island. But Sophia’s fear of the skull, and her preoccupation with Heaven and whether and how God responds to prayer, could perhaps be traced back to her mother’s recent death. (Also to being six and curious, but the death gives her questions more potency.) But that’s never delved into. This is very much a book about the immediate moment. It’s almost as if summer, and the island, is its own separate space, untouched by events that take place elsewhere.

I could see the craft and care put into this book, but I wish I loved it more than I did. I got too caught up in trying to put a sequence to things and to tie the vignettes together. I suppose I don’t have the knack for the kind of aimless meandering embodied in this summer story. But in the right mood, I can see how this book could enrapture me. Perhaps it could you, too.

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Home

Frank Money is a veteran of the Korean War, and he’s trying to return to a home he had no desire to see again. The reason? He’s received word that his sister, Cee, is dying. So Frank, battling addiction and haunted by ghosts and memories, travels from Seattle to Georgia, relying on the help of strangers.

In this short novel, Toni Morrison chronicles Frank’s journey, his memories, and Cee’s experiences. Frank and Cee spent most of their childhood in the little town of Lotus, Georgia. With parents who worked constantly, and a step-mother who treated Cee with resentment, Frank and Cee were left on their own most of the time. Eventually, Frank escaped to Korea, and Cee escaped into an ill-fated marriage. In both cases, their escapes led to new disasters.

One of the things that strikes me about this book is that, although there is tremendous suffering in its pages, the focus is more on the aftermath. We don’t witness a lot of the most vicious violence firsthand, and when we do see it, the story doesn’t linger there. It’s the pain that lingers in the characters’ bodies and minds. It’s that lingering pain that’s at the story’s center. It’s a story about the aftermath.

And sometimes, the meaning of the memory isn’t even clear. Frank tells himself an incomplete story about Korea because the full truth can’t be borne. Frank and Cee witnessed the aftermath of a horror in their childhood that they didn’t really understand until they were adults. But they knew it was a horror, and it haunted them anyway.

Although the book tells a very painful story, it’s ultimately hopeful. Much of that hope is in the Black community and how people within that community take care of each other, even when they are strangers. As Frank travels across the country, he is arrested, hospitalized, and robbed. In each case, a stranger makes sure he’s able to get back on the path to Georgia. They offer money, food, a place to sleep. One man even goes out of his way to take Frank clothes shopping. I got the sense that these people know from experience how impossible it is to get by in racist America without help, and so they’ve created among themselves an informal network of helpers. (And a formal one: There’s a reference to the Green Book, which was specifically developed to help Black travelers find friendly places to stay.)

Similarly, when Cee is injured at the hands of a doctor who used her body for unconscionable experiments, the community rallies around her, even though it’s a community she rejected. And, of course, there’s the way Frank and Cee band together, both as children and adults. And the book closes with Frank and Cee offering a final act of kindness to a stranger. This is the only way forward — to be ready to help and honor and give care when it’s needed. Sometimes that care is best given by those who know the pain. Frank is excluded from much of the care given to Cee because her pain is specific to women, but he still has a place in her healing. His place is to prepare a home, to be a home. Seeing Frank, Cee, and so many others come together in this way made this short book feel especially beautiful, a needed bit of healing during difficult times.

 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 8 Comments

The Hundred Days

I’ve been struggling to focus on my reading these days. It took me several weeks to finish Hild, even though I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I haven’t been able to muster up much interest in any of the other books I’ve picked up since then. Travel and TV and news and magazine articles have been filling my brain instead.

To get myself back in the book habit, I decided to go for something reliable, the 19th novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (and the penultimate book to be completed). I don’t know how much of it was my mood, but this didn’t turn out to be among my favorites in the series, although it has its pleasing moments.

The book covers the period of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his defeat at Waterloo. Jack is serving a commodore over a fleet of ships that goes to north Africa to cut off any support Napoleon might receive from allies there. But before the mission begins, we readers learn of a tragic and shocking death that occurred after the events of The Yellow Admiral. It’s a significant enough moment that I was a little annoyed that the death and its immediate aftermath all happen off the page and get hardly any attention beyond that. I wouldn’t necessarily want the book to wallow in the tragedy, and certainly life and war will go on, but the lack of emotional repercussions seems wrong.

As for the story itself, it takes a while to get going, and I found the early chapters, which involve some political intrigue, a little hard to follow. I was, however, delighted to see Jack take on board a female loblolly boy named Poll. A widow who’s served on multiple ships, Poll helps Stephen and his assistant surgeon, Dr. Jacobs, and is a valuable member of the crew.

It’s only after the Surprise reaches Algiers that the book as a whole really takes off. Stephen and Jacobs head out to meet Omar Pasha and his political adviser to ensure that they make no moves to support Napoleon. As usual, Stephen takes pleasure in the animal life he encounters along the way. And the adventure builds up to a lion-hunting expedition that nearly turns fatal.

Another startling development occurs at the market in Algiers, where Stephen encounters two seven-year-old Irish children who’ve been trafficked into slavery. He immediately purchases them and takes them under his wing, with the intention to ensure that they get home to Ireland.

Other than that, not much in this book stands out. It has sea battles and storms and unexpected obstacles, a lot of the typical trappings of an O’Brian novel. Not among my favorites, but not weak enough to detract from my overall pleasure in the series.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

Lincoln in the Bardo

lincoln in the bardoBefore I read this novel, I was already a fan of George Saunders from two of his collections of outstanding short stories (Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation.) I love the way he plays with form, and the… what can I say? The dry farce of his stories, and the way he shows human beings at their lowest, and somehow loves us anyway. I wondered what a George Saunders novel would be like, though. Sometimes weirdness is at its best in short form, you know?

I ought to have trusted him.

This novel is not like any other novel I’ve read. Generally, it is about the death of Willie Lincoln — an open-hearted, kind little boy — and his father’s rending grief, with a cloud of attending circumstances and witnesses. The chapters alternate: some are collections of quotations from dozens of sources (some primary, some secondary), describing the night Willie died, the circumstances leading up to it, the funeral, and so forth. The sources sometimes agree with each other and sometimes contradict each other absurdly.

The other chapters are narrative chapters — narrated by the voices of the dead who populate the graveyard where Willie has been laid in his “sick-box,” as they prefer to call it. (They are too delicate to name death.) These men and women like to tell the stories of their own lives when they were… not sick and confined to the cemetery, but they are also very concerned about Willie. He can’t stay; it’s bad for young ones to stay. He needs to pass on to whatever’s on the other side. But his presidential father’s deep love and grief are holding him here, to his own danger. The narrators decide to try to figure out how to help him move on, even if it means sacrificing their own understanding of their place in their universe.

Both kinds of chapters — the historical sources and the narrative voices of the dead — have the function of a sort of Greek chorus, as they speak over each other and tell their own stories. It’s a strange way of putting together a novel, and it emphasizes that history is a patchwork: it’s what we remember about ourselves, and what sources say (neither of which may be accurate.) The truth of things lies somewhere unfindable. When the surrounding dead see Abraham Lincoln come into the mausoleum and take his little son’s body out of his coffin to hold him one more time, they stand speechless and amazed. They’ve never seen that kind of love before, or such deep sorrow. They want to crowd around and tell their stories to someone capable of that kind of feeling: women and men, enslaved people and free, ministers and sinners. And it becomes clear that those distinctions are perhaps less meaningful than they seemed in life.

Why Lincoln? Is it arbitrary? I don’t think so. That patchwork of history has so much to say about him, for one thing, and yet we can’t really know his heart or his thoughts. All those voices are incomplete without the reality of emotion and love. That grief has a kind of universality about it that Saunders makes infinitely touching. (I read this book on a plane, which was a terrible mistake because I had to control my tears.) Saunders doesn’t speculate much about the system of the afterlife — he leaves it mysterious — but he implies that loving action is what matters. He leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions about Lincoln, about the narrators, and about ourselves.

This was a strange, beautiful, moving book. It’s hard for me to know who to recommend it to, because I don’t think everyone would like it in the same way they might like a more linear novel, but I thought it was wonderful. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve read it.

 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 14 Comments