Lincoln in the Bardo
  • March 8, 2018

    Opening Round

  • George Saunders

    1Lincoln in the Bardo
    4Fever Dream

    Samanta Schweblin

  • Judged by

    Meaghan O’Connell

Fever Dream

I’ll start by putting all of my cards on the table: I am one of those longtime George Saunders fans who weeps in the car, listening to him being interviewed on some podcast about his quest for essential goodness. I first read Pastoralia for an undergraduate writing workshop and I bought Lincoln in the Bardo the day it came out, in hardcover. I read it swiftly, was enervated-impressed-uplifted.

Meaghan O’Connell’s writing has appeared in New York magazine, Longreads, and The Billfold, where she was an editor. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and young son. Her book of essays, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in April 2018. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

The basic premise, if you’ve somehow escaped reading all the awards coverage it’s gotten, is, well, not so basic. There are two threads that the book moves between. First one: There are these ghosts who are dead but don’t know it, and want to stick around, or are unwilling to accept that they can’t go back to regular life. They are stuck in this time-space plane of transitional existence that Saunders calls “the bardo,” a term borrowed from a Buddhist concept of the afterlife, meaning “the in-between place.” We slowly figure this out through the course of the book (the ghosts figure it out even more slowly). And then there’s the second, more reality-based thread, told through a collage of historical documents (some real, some fictional), about President Lincoln, the Lincoln White House, and his 11-year-old son Willie dying, all against the backdrop of the Civil War. These two threads, which the book alternates between, intertwine when Willie’s body shows up at the cemetery, his ghost lingering in the aforementioned bardo, and the main ghosts want to help him move on (while not really understanding themselves why or what that would mean).

The result of this elaborate setup is, like so much of what Saunders writes, rewarding once you get a handle on it. The book develops a narrative against the odds, almost despite itself, enabling Saunders to reach for maudlin or existential moments that would otherwise be too corny, or too much, or feel unearned with straightforward narration. The ghosts waxing poetic about life, for instance, somehow managed to bring me to tears with a litany of good things about the world: “Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.” OK it still makes me cry, in that life-affirming podcast way.

I had no such borderline daddy-issue-level entanglement with Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, which had escaped my radar almost entirely, until I read the jacket copy and remembered hearing about this book’s bizarre narrative frame: “A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her.” The two of them narrate the story together, with the mysterious boy goading the dying woman on, asking her leading questions, prompting her to tell whatever story it is that urgently needs to be told before she runs out of time (by dying). The opening is as disorienting as Lincoln in the Bardo’s, if less convoluted. But while Bardo’s ghosts all but tap-dance across the page, making poop jokes and talking about boners, Fever Dream’s narrators earn our attention not with charm but with PURE DREAD. Opening dialogue:

They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
No, another kind of worms.

All of the blurbs for this book use words like “unsettling,” “creepy,” “nightmare,” but since when does a book live up to the exuberant adjectives of its marketing copy? I imagined a slow build, getting good old-fashioned attached to some characters, and then later, after putting the book aside a few times, having the rug pulled out from under me by an edgy twist. Instead, I had to figure out what was going on with these damn worms.

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The woman, Amanda, and the boy, David, are both confused. They themselves, as they tell the story, are trying to parse the essential from the nonessential. The effect of this is utterly destabilizing, subverting what is arguably a core premise of the novel, or narration, in general—“this matters because I am mentioning it.” David repeatedly tells Amanda that she is—we are—focusing on the wrong details. The search for what is relevant, paired with the knowledge, firmly established if not fully understood, that the stakes are high, makes us as vigilant as Amanda and David.

When the plot’s inciting incident is revealed, we are already so on edge that the details—ones that would, in a different book, in different hands, be merely far-fetched—are viscerally disturbing.

I had no intention to stay up past my bedtime to read an entire book that night, but putting it down was unfathomable. I was gripped, yes, but also sick with dread. I had to keep reading if for no other reason than with the hope that if I reached the end everything would be settled, the suspense would be over, the mystery solved. I was too ill at ease to look away. Getting up to pee in the quiet house had me genuinely unnerved, the way you feel after a bad dream. Vigilant. It had me clutching the walls in the hallway as I made my way to the bathroom, and later when I went to check on my sleeping son (I had to!).

The book ends up being in no small part about vigilance—that it’s all we have, and yet it’s not enough. Throughout the book Amanda comes back to the concept of, as she calls it, “rescue distance.” How far away from her daughter she is at all times, how long it would take to save her if something bad happened. Something bad has happened and is always threatening to happen in this book. The quest, at David’s urging, is Amanda figuring out where everything went wrong. Could it have been prevented?

I closed the book feeling just as uneasy as I’d been when I opened it, and somehow fell asleep. The next morning I shuddered, bleary-eyed and pointing to it on my nightstand while my husband I got dressed. “That book is EVIL,” I said, but I said it with absolute awe.

And then I looked at Lincoln in the Bardo, thinking of its essential goodness. The next night I started rereading it, but instead of staying up all night, I read a good 50 pages. It felt a little like work. I laughed, I read out loud from it, I noted how skillfully Saunders brought in jokes or charm or poignancy as a way to earn our attention while he added more and more ancillary ghosts into the mix, bending his own rules (fine) and never quite pinning anything down (yet still, it seemed, backing himself into a corner?).

The emotional center of the book, or at least the precipitating emotional event, is the president coming to where his young son is interred and taking out and holding his body. This event on its own, allegedly taken from life, would provide enough emotional power to carry a novel, as far as I’m concerned. And yet the scene, arc-wise, comes relatively early (too soon to be climactic), and is narrated by a trio of ghosts, one of whom has a giant erection. Or, as young ghost Willie describes it:

The other man (the one hit by a beam)      Quite naked      Member swollen to the size of      Could not take my eyes off
It bounced as he
Body like a dumpling      Broad flat nose like a sheep’s
Quite naked indeed

It’s funny. I love to see Saunders having fun. When a new layer of tendril demons are introduced, however, my tolerance of all of this felt tested. Is this new category of un-person more purgatorial than the standard ghosts? More hell-associated? And why can I not visualize any of it?

Perhaps after Fever Dream, any book feels like it’s lagging, but this definitely did. My thoughts grew less generous. Is George setting up world-building hoops for himself just to see if later he can jump through them? Can’t you just write a straightforward novel, Dad? Does it have to be so complicated? So weird? So damned vague?

I respect the idea of a writer keeping himself on his toes, artistically, and it’s a testament to his brilliance and skill that he can almost, pretty much pull it off, but also—why? It’s hard not to ask: Is the emotional payoff going to be worth all this confusing ghost shit?

I think it is, but only just so. It is a book you have to meet halfway. It is a book you must enter into a pact with: I will tolerate not remembering who all these damned ghosts are and forgive some of these highwire-act impulses and try not to mention here the hardly-dealt-with issues of race if you will give me big feelings about what it means to be alive. The feelings, for me, though, stayed relatively small. Surprisingly minor. They didn’t sneak up and overtake me, in fact they were constantly, unabashedly arriving from all sides. The pacing of the book feels like it was a battle just barely won, either overworked or not worked over enough.

In the end it is a book I would hesitate to recommend to people, unless they, too, had a longstanding affection for our nation’s foremost try-hard Buddhist dad/writer. (Granted, we are legion.) On the other hand, Fever Dream is not a book you have to meet halfway. In fact if you take one small step toward it, some tendriled demon reaches out and grabs you and there go the next few hours of your life.

It turns out that in the literary battle of good and evil, I choose evil. I want to giddily inflict Fever Dream on everyone. I wish its visceral power upon you. I am dying for you to read it. Please email me about it once you do.


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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: Being the same kind of Saunders fan as Judge O’Connell, Lincoln in the Bardo was one of the three Tournament books I read prior to the shortlist announcement. I’ve always been drawn to the deep humanity of Saunders’s work. He is generous to his characters, empathetic in the extreme. There’s always been plenty of darkness in his stories, but they’re simultaneously infused with kindness. This is a writer who believes in humankind.

Judge O’Connell is fantastic at illuminating how Bardo works, or perhaps doesn’t quite work, at least for me. The novel felt like a great achievement when I looked at it from the outside, but I had a hard time getting inside it. My admiration didn’t convert to love.

This has to be one of the biggest upsets in Tournament of Books history: a book that won the Booker Prize has been taken down by a translation, a category that has a notoriously difficult time in the Tournament, and yet, when I got the news, I wasn’t entirely surprised.

Kevin Guilfoile: I read Saunders’s Pastoralia when it came out, years ago, and as soon as I finished it I knew which of my friends I wanted to talk about it with. We went to dinner and I slid it across the table and I said, “You have to read this.” We didn’t see each other again for a year, but when we did he ran up to me and said, “Kev, you have to read this,” and he pulled my own copy of Pastoralia out of his bag and pressed it into my hands.

Saunders is one of those writers who has fans as much as readers and I am certainly one. Still, my experience of reading Bardo and Fever Dream is almost exactly the same as Judge O’Connell’s. When I was done with Bardo, I thought, “Well that’s really quite a thing.” It’s impressive in a great many ways. It can be funny and profound. But I didn’t really enjoy reading it, which is crazy because there is almost no writer I can think of who generally delights me as much as Saunders. I couldn’t tell most of the ghosts apart. And it’s written “oral-history style,” but each passage is attributed to its author/speaker at the end so I never knew who was narrating (or I had to interrupt my reading to glance down and find out) until I realized that most of the time it really didn’t matter who was speaking, at which point I muttered a little “Ergh” to myself.

Fever Dream, by the way, has some momentum coming into the Tournament. It earned its spot on the ToB shortlist by winning the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge. Like Judge O’Connell, I drank this novel in a single sitting, the way it was almost certainly intended to be read. It is truly creepy, even though it hurdles most of the tropes and techniques we are accustomed to in horror writing, which it isn’t, exactly. It vibrates wonderfully with tension, and although it has an ingenious structure that intertwines these two sets of interactions—one between Amanda and David and another between Amanda and Carla—and it feels at times like the meanings of things are just beyond your ability to grasp them, it has incredible narrative momentum. It is hard to stop reading this story. Our judge read it at night, which is recommended for extra goosebumps.

Seriously, this book will affect you. And although I never feel like I know how to grade such things, the translation must be magnificent, too. I was never conscious of the fact that I was reading a novel that had been written in another tongue.

John: I’m curious if any of the commentariat has experienced Lincoln in the Bardo in its audiobook form, and if so, what effect the medium and presentation might have had. According to this story from WIRED, it features 166 different voices and is like a “movie” which would be an extra amazing trick, so I assume they mean radio play and we’ve just forgotten that those things used to exist.

It sounds like it could be an amazing experience, and may do something to help differentiate some of these voices since it’s easy to tell a Nick Offerman from a Don Cheadle and a Megan Mullally from a Julianne Moore. The WIRED article makes it sound like quite a production, though it also identifies some of the recording happening in “South Bend, Illinois,” which doesn’t exist, so who knows?

Kevin: The audiobook does sound very cool, and I’m beginning to regret I didn’t consume it that way. I’m sure I would feel very differently because my impressions of the novel have much to do with process rather than content. If I were younger than 40 or a vampire, I would go back right now and listen to it. If you haven’t read Bardo yet, you might want to consider a download.

John: Given the legion of Saunders fans, you have to expect Bardo to be a contender come Zombie Round time, but there’s a long way to go between here and there and it’s also possible Saunders fans switched votes to a second favorite, figuring the number one seed/Booker winner was secure.

One match in the books. As in recent years, we’ve taken steps to spare the audience from our constant yammering, so we’ve invited some of our favorite bookish people to take over the booth on days we’re off indulging in our absinthe habits. Kicking us off tomorrow is Laura Cogan, editor of venerable West Coast literary journal ZYZZYVA, to opine on Tournament play-in winner The Idiot going up against Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, as judged by Ismail Muhammed.

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