Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” (Roger Bevins III, p. 304)

Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.

George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them.

Some of the deceased, so we’re told, resist the matterlightblooming, preferring to hang around in a limbo, neither fish nor fowl. Saunders uses the term “bardo” (borrowed, apparently, from Tibetan religious tradition) for that liminal state, although a better title for this book might be something like Lincoln in Liminality. Why? Because the novel is eminently American, it is anchored in American history; therefore, it might be better not to bring in an obscure term from an alien tradition. Sometimes it seems, at any rate, as if we were looking at some standard purgatory, as in the passage where a former hunter is forced to sit before an enormous heap of the animals he had killed over a lifetime, “each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months.” Continue reading

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

TheroadI’m ten years late getting around to reading The Road (Alfred A. Knopf, 287 pages), but since it has to rank among the most powerful pieces of American fiction written in the past ten years, it remains more than worthy of discussion. McCarthy here tells a tale of “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” We’re in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. Bad times have descended upon the U.S. and the whole world, consequent upon some enormous Catastrophe. We are never told what happened—it could have been a nuclear war—but one thing is obvious: something really big has blown, leaving ash all over the earth and floating through the air. Apparently most animals are extinct, and the few human beings who survive face fellow humans who are, largely, living beastly lives. Continue reading

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

ConductorIt is easy to understand how The Conductor (Vintage, 303 pages) stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history. Continue reading

Vox Populi by Clay Reynolds

voxpopuliIn Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life (Texas Review Press, 211 pages) an unnamed narrator endures various brief encounters with strangers while out on errands—waiting for, paying for, or ordering something. Clay Reynolds must have been keeping a journal for years because his little tales ring true in their preposterousness. Truth is stranger than fiction. It is hard to believe people can be so rude, so tactless, so pushy, so dumb, and yet people are. Usually the unrelated event described in each chapter involves some implausibly insensitive and very loud person disrupting the normal course of humdrum business with performances that are as outrageous as they are unfortunately common. We’ve all have been shocked and appalled to witness such scenes in our own daily lives, and once home we say to our spouses, You’ll never believe what this crazy lady did at the grocery store, etc. Continue reading

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

TheMasterOfPetersburgCoetzee’s novel of Dostoevsky (The Master of Petersburg, Penguin Books, 250 pages) is a mysterious portrait of the artist surrounding his The Possessed. Suppose a preliminary to Dostoevsky’s demons story could extend it via a narrative featuring the great author himself. Coetzee’s portrayal is that novel. Dostoevsky becomes a half-fiction in this role, somewhat real and somewhat false. Does that matter? It’s not easy to answer. As protagonist-novelist, Dostoevsky’s most important function for Coetzee might be as guide and exemplar, somewhat disheveled and brooding into our own age. Continue reading

Milligan and Murphy by Jim Murdoch

milliganOpening a novel with a quote, particularly one from a writer as universally celebrated as Samuel Beckett, risks much. A reader is apt to spend a good deal of the novel comparing the works of the writer before him to those of the great master, fall into a reverie about how great was the work of the great master, and lose track of what the book in hand is going on about. Jim Murdoch, the author of Milligan and Murphy (Fandango Virtual, 180 pages), assumes that risk. Continue reading

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Stories by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is clearly an accomplished and, at times, brilliant writer. If it were only a matter of judging his playfulness, innovation, and enthusiasm-sheer energy-it would be hard to imagine him scoring higher. For example, one of his conceits, Datum Centurio, features a hard copy version of a future (2096) dictionary which defines “date.” In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages) the innovative “story” mimics the complete typographical layout of a real dictionary and notes to the effect that with “compatible hardware” (e.g., a neural plug) we could get the entire “pentasensory” (i.e., virtual reality) illustrative support. The dictionary definition traces the ancestral origins of date to earlier in the century (i.e., our time) when the term was Continue reading