Monday, March 13, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Although I love George Saunders's short story collection Tenth of December and his pre-election essay on Trump's followers, I wasn't sure I was going to read his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is about the death of Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid in the early days of the Civil War, and reading historical fiction about actual people always feels weird to me. But when I saw the rave reviews (Caitlin PenzeyMoog of the A.V. Club called it "a postmodern masterpiece"), I knew I had to get it.

Lincoln in the Bardo is no ordinary piece of historical fiction, and its unusual format can take some getting used to. The story, which spans the night after Willie Lincoln's funeral, is mainly told through statements from the ghosts/spirits that are Willie's new neighbors. ("Bardo" is a Tibetan word referring to the concept of a transitional state after death.) The spirits are numerous, but there are three main characters who immediately take stranded soul Willie under their wing: Hans Vollman, a middle-aged printer who died in a freak accident; Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide; and Reverend Everly Thomas, who died of old age. They finish each other's sentences, cut each other off, and elaborate on each other's points, as if all three were sitting in front of you, telling you what happened. This example should give you a feel for the style:

"Then it happened.
roger bevins iii

An extraordinary occurrence.
hans vollman

Unprecedented, really.
the reverend everly thomas"

As with the rest of the ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery, these three are staying behind on Earth voluntarily for their own reasons. Vollman's death happened just before he finally consummated his marriage to his beloved young wife, and he can't accept that he isn't simply sick and won't recover. As a manifestation of his sexual frustration, his ghost appears as naked and cartoonishly erect. Moments before dying, Bevins regretted leaving the world, with all its beauty, behind, and his ghost has many eyes and arms, trying to see and touch all nature has to offer. (The bond between kind Vollman and aesthete Bevins is now one of my favorite literary friendships.) Reverend Thomas's reasons are more elusive, but eventually revealed.

Despite their own desire to not move on, they are united in their determination to get Willie to leave Earth. In the book's universe, children's souls who don't move on are sentenced to eternal torment near their graves. The ghosts have already witnessed this happening to one young teenager, Elise Traynor, who is welded to the cemetery fence and writhes, full of rage, from one horrible form to the next. But Willie is delayed by his father, the President himself, who returns to the dead boy's side multiple times throughout the night (which Lincoln, an involved and loving father who had already lost his three-year-old son Eddie over a decade earlier, apparently did in real life).

Saunders frequently cites Keckley's Behind the Scenes
or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

There are also narratives told through quotations from various cited sources. "Are the nonfiction excerpts - from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclers - real or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later," wisely advises author Colson Whitehead in his New York Times review. I mostly read on the bus anyway, which makes pausing to look up references cumbersome, so I indeed Googled later. As Saunders has confirmed, the citations are for a mix of actual and invented sources. Those quoted include Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave who was later Mary Todd Lincoln's stylist), bereaved parents who lost their own sons to the ongoing Civil War, contemporary op-ed writers, and later historians. As with the ghosts, these various narrators' voices come together as in an oral history. Here the sources "talk" about Lincoln's face:

"In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
In 'Six Months in the White House: The Story of a Picture,' by F.B. Carpenter.

But when he smiled or laughed...
In 'Lincoln's Photographs: A Complete Album,' by Lloyd Ostendorf, account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
In 'Lincoln the Man,' by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist."

Willie Lincoln, age 5

I would be remiss in not pointing out what I felt was the book's weakness, which is its portrayal of black characters. While many of the white ghosts are quirky, different characters we haven't seen before, the black ghosts of the segregated cemetery are mostly archetypes, and we learn comparatively little about them besides their plights. I was also ambivalent about the ending, which I'm sure will be controversial among readers. In his review in the Guardian, author Hari Kunzru describes this ending as, "a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche." Like Kunzru I found it cloying, but I can see how others might see it as transcendent.

Lincoln and his son Tad, who would die at 18

Ultimately, through many voices both created and curated by Saunders we get a story about the griefs and joys of life and a man and a country in turmoil. We get a story about familial love, deep friendship, and second chances. This is a novel I'll treasure for years and one that has already been a comfort.

Elizabeth Keckley: Documenting the American South
Willie Lincoln: Wikimedia
Lincoln and Tad: Wikimedia

Friday, March 3, 2017

Scavenging for Scraps: Star Wars Aftermath Empire's End

Grand Admiral Rae Sloane on a poster for the book

Chuck Wendig's Aftermath series is set immediately after Return of the Jedi, and comprises three novels, two with multiple colons: Star Wars: Aftermath, Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, and Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire's End. I have to admit I did not read the first one, instead jumping in at Life Debt last year. Empire's End, the final book in this trilogy, came out on February 21, and I finished it recently.

Empire's End is not high art, and it's not supposed to be. I bought George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo at the same time, knowing I was buying apples and oranges. Or maybe champagne and popcorn. And as popcorn, Empire's End is fine. It's good popcorn, but not the best popcorn. The point is, like Life Debt (and I assume Aftermath before it, which was not well reviewed), Empire's End is a bit chaotic and messy. The writing can be slapdash. It's overstuffed with original characters in a way that made me feel like I was constantly being presented with David S. Pumpkins - but David S. Pumpkins within the context of his skit's world, not in our world where he has become an ironic but beloved and newly vital part of Halloween.

Also, Wendig uses the word "tailbone" a weird amount of times. I didn't count how many, but it is a lot.

However, Wendig had an assignment that was as much nightmare as dream, and he used that opportunity to give us a fuller, more diverse Star Wars universe that peers into corners across the galaxy. We have new characters to root for and new perspectives on established characters*. And ultimately, the last two books gave those ravenous for the next Star Wars movie some hints at what might be coming. To be completely honest, that's why I read Empire's End and Life Debt (and also Claudia Gray's Bloodline): a desire to mine the novels for any clues to to the mysteries that The Force Awakens left us with, and to stave off the hunger pains for The Last Jedi.

I'm not doing a full review for Empire's End, but I have some thoughts below, because what Star Wars fan doesn't have thoughts on something related to Star Wars? This post is fairly spoiler-lite, in my opinion, except for the fates of two characters (if you want a proper review with no spoilers, check out FANgirl).

Norra Wexley on the reverse of the poster

-Rae Sloane: The Empire's principled but ruthless Grand Admiral, first seen in A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, has become a fan favorite through these books and the comics. This is the biggest spoiler I will give here, and it's that Sloane does not die. Yay! However, her fate is uncertain, since she is last seen going off to what we know will become the First Order, and it seems unlikely she would be on board with what the First Order does in The Force Awakens. I am really, really hoping that Thandie Newton's mystery role in the Han Solo film is a young Rae Sloane.

-Sinjir Rath Velus: Sinjir, a former Imperial loyalty officer (a.k.a. internal torturer) turned New Republic ally, is my favorite character from the Aftermath books. He's a cocky, erudite, humorous guy who loves alcohol and hot men and is trying to redeem himself (just not too much). He had better not have fucking been on Hosnian Prime when Armitage Hux blew it up, because I hope this character makes an appearance in Episodes VIII or IX. Sinjir would be a great role for some suave silver fox of a Middle Eastern or South Asian actor.

-Greg Grunberg: In the Aftermath books, Temmin "Snap" Wexley, son of Norra Wexley, is in his late teens. "Wait a second," I thought while reading Life Debt. "That timeline doesn't work. Leia's pregnant with Ben. Adam Driver, who plays Ben in The Force Awakens, is 33, and his character is 29. Greg Grunberg, who plays Snap, is what? Late 30s, maybe 40?" HE IS FIFTY YEARS OLD. Congrats on your genetic luck, you youthful-looking middle-aged geek-specialty actor.

Snap, not looking like he could have babysat infant Kylo Ren

-Kylo Ren/Ben Solo: Ben spends most of the books in Leia's uterus, where, it's hinted, he is already being tormented by the Dark Side and/or Snoke. Fun! When he's a newborn, he apparently likes his parents ok enough and smells like fresh towels. Seriously, there is a lot about how good "star baby" Ben smells.

-Armitage Hux: Kylo's future co-commander is four years old and also having a shit time. In Life Debt, we not only finally learned Hux's first name, but also that he's the illegitimate child his father (Brendol Hux, who ran the Empire's military academy) had with a household servant. Rax, the Empire's shadow leader, has Brendol and Armitage extracted from Arkanis because they need Brendol's troop-training abilities and, ominously, "children." Armitage is abused by Brendol, who is described as pretty much looking like Brendan Gleeson, because how the hell else would he look? (Armitage Hux is played by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's son.) Things start getting better, but also weirder, for Armitage when he's given, at four, a battalion of brainwashed feral children and then forms an alliance with Sloane. That's a lot to deal with pre-kindergarten, but you probably don't end up giving this speech if you had a normal childhood.

"Does he know I'm thinking about that time I almost wet myself?"

-Luke: Luke is not present. He's away doing Jedi things by himself. It's not even clear if he visits Han and Leia once Ben is born (it's reported as a "rumor" that he might have made a quick appearance). In Bloodline, he was away, for years, doing Jedi things with Ben. In The Force Awakens, he was away, for years, presumably doing Jedi things, again by himself. For all his time spent doing Jedi things, it sure doesn't seem like he's discovered anything useful, given the state of his family's lives, his own life, and the galaxy at large. What if he's just crazy and has been wandering around aimlessly for decades? What if when The Last Jedi starts, Luke is like, "Let me show you the ancient Jedi's most powerful artifact" to Rey and then hands her a fucking empty blue milk carton he found in the trash somewhere?

-Rey: As in Bloodline, we don't explicitly learn anything about Rey, but given what happens on Jakku and the hints of what's going on in the Unknown Regions, I think Rey's background is going to be bonkers. I think it is going to be batshit-bananas-bonkers, and I am waiting on tenterhooks.

*Edited to add: Wendig also does a great job handling two toxic properties of the Star Wars universe. One is a fitting coda to its most hated character. The other deals with a character originally from the dreaded Holiday Special. Can you guess who? If not not, you get a lump of coal in your stocking. Ho, ho, ho!

Rae Sloane and Norra Wexley posters: Star Wars Underworld
Snap: Star Wars official site
Hux and Kylo: Wookieepedia