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review 2017-03-16 15:29
Lincoln in the Bardo - by George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

It would seem convenient, career-wise, for George Saunders to have found a novel in him after the success of Tenth of December, but if timing makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem shrewd, the writing inside will assure you that it was, in fact, inspired.


I'm not sure why I try to temper my enthusiasm for this book and Saunders generally; I suspect years of cool outlaws make siding with any sort of consensus group uncomfortable. Saunders has certainly garnered a mass of critical and audience praise but yeah, I'm going to jump on board because his writing is very good and original and relevant.


Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange and ambitious novel. It is structured almost like a play, a 300 page dialogue. The main story takes place in a graveyard among ghosts including Willie Lincoln, who has just arrived (i.e. died) and will be visited by his father, Abraham. This part is based in contemporary stories of Abe visiting his son at the cemetery at night and holding the body. Willie was just 11 when he died. Willie is greeted by our protagonists, Hans Vollman and Richard Bevins III. They, like all the other ghosts, have not accepted their situation and, as ghosts tend to, have unresolved business in life.


Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters of actual historians and contemporaries describing the times and life with the Lincolns. I was a bit concerned going into these sections, but Saunders uses a device that is common through the novel, splitting the account among many voices. The effect is kind of like a mosaic, with the scene being built, one sentence or paragraph at a time, each from a different perspective. It brings the scene home a little, like a group of friends talking over to recount some interesting event. They diverge at points, and come to consensus at others, but it comes off as something more interesting than a straight recounting. Saunders is able to dwell on interesting points, like a city of candy for a party at the Lincoln's, or the weather the night of Willy's death. It was probably much more work on Saunders point, but it removes some of the formality of the history while puncturing his story with the weight of real events, real deaths, and a real war not far to the south of these events.


The ghosts do this as well and often you'll find Bevins telling us what Vollman said then Vollman telling us what Bevins said. Being a chorus of souls who can't even acknowledge they are dead -- though they know they are dissociated from their bodies which reside in "sick-boxes" -- this is the most honest way of accounting for beings that are too busy looking at everyone else to notice their own situation. Everyone apart from the two Lincolns. 


Saunders' voice is something like the literary equivalent of artisinal hamburgers or secret shows in Brooklyn speakeasies, it's high art masquerading as everyday objects. For the most part, he reflects spoken language, often dropping articles and subjects, or inflecting statements with interrogative properties. (Like, writes it so it sounds unsure, as if you're asking a question.) But it's not really speech, that would make for shit writing. He's always leading, pulling you to a particular emotional state where he can drop the next reveal on you.


Lincoln in the Bardo does what I think is most amazing about Saunders: His most sorrowful stories are somehow his most heartening. I saw Saunders speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia and he ended talking about the book as an acknowledgement not just of our own mortality, but everyone's: everybody you love will die. This was on Valentine's Day. 


Loss is a pretty clear theme in the book, it is about ghosts, after all. Lincoln is having to bury his child, and deal with the fact that he is sending many young men to die in a war at the same time. The ghosts are powerless in the world, they cannot find resolution through their actions. The futures they see will never come about, and what comes next is, if nothing else, inevitable, and the focus on postponing that next place is ultimately fruitless. 


Still, this realization comes with a (relatively) light touch. Something in how Saunders makes it common, makes his characters one of many. It's not the sad, impotent thrashings of a raving hero striking at the sea, it's a family at the end of a tough day sitting together for a quiet moment. It reminds me of Whitman:

"That you are here -- that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

The point isn't that life/love/humanity/Firefly will end, but that life happened, isn't that miracle enough? Saunders is more clever than to hammer you in the head with it like I do, but that's what I take from it, and what many seem to -- his work is often noted for it's "humanity" whatever you make of that. Despite the real horror of some of his novels, and many decidedly tough endings, there is something affirming in the story, something hopeful. Bravery, usually, often of the less obvious sort.


The novel has its flaws, most noteworthy I'd say that Saunders has trouble smoothing out some very modern speech patterns. I'm not holding him to a real high standard on this one, he said in his talk that he wasn't trying to go full method actor or anything though he worked to strike things to obvious like "friggin". Still, in a couple parts it was a little distracting to hear someone who spoke like they had seen more than one Keanu Reeves movie. 


I highly recommend this to all readers of fiction. One nice thing is the dialogue structure seems to pull you along and also depress the word count so it is a very quick read. 


Happy Reading!

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review 2016-07-18 14:47
Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
Native Speaker - Chang-rae Lee

I cannot believe this novel is 30 years old. I don't know how Chang-rae Lee made a story so steeped in the specific experience of Korean-american families feel so personal to very different audiences. I can't believe he did it all in a spy story. But, here it is, his first novel, Native Speaker and it is phenomenal.


In a summary this book makes no sense. Henry Park is a first-generation American of Korean parents. He is separated from his wife. He is a corporate spy of sorts, a job that conveniently represents the way he feels slipping between the Korean of his family and the American of his upbringing; it also serves to bring those sides into conflict. Henry is dealing with recent deaths in his family, including that of his father, with whom he had a troubled relationship — an experience we can trace through generations and cultures as far back as Telemachus and Odysseus in ancient Greece. He lives in New York City, a setting that cannot help but become a character in any book that takes place in its boroughs. 


Native Speaker should have been a pleasant story about the Korean emigrant experience in America that could be adapted into a nice rom-com or nationally endorsed book-club selection. Or it could have been a fringe experiment in genre-bending (the cover suggests the latter). In execution we get something smart and transcendent.


Lee finds new ways to explore questions of identity that have been a part of nearly every immigrant story in American history. Henry Park, after all, isn't the immigrant who worked his way up from poverty, he isn't even the passive child admiring the struggles of his parents — though that is part of the book as well. He is a man, at odds with both worlds, and, as a spy-of-sorts, is called to face these opposing forces in unexpected ways.


Lee's novel succeeds in large part because of his willingness to dwell in the details, but the right details. There are a few moments where you see a time-stamp — some telling detail that places the book firmly in the early 90s, like Vanilla Ice on the radio — but they are sparse and only visible if you are looking for them. The details Lee dwells on tell us about the characters. He presents their gestures and reactions, their tics and features. These details further the story, they reveal something new, they fill out a living world. Because of this he is able to straddle the line, painting a world that is vivid in the reader's mind but still eerily close 31 years on. Phones change, people stay the same.


It is not a short read and, despite Henry Park's occupation, Native Speaker is not a spy thriller. It is definitely of the literary bent, and for people of that bent, it is a book you will definitely enjoy.


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review 2016-03-11 14:34
Actually, "the Flamethrowers" seems appropriate here
The Flamethrowers - Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers is a shape-shifter, a slinking fire-lizard, spectacular and formless. It's lines are curving, colorful and deceptive, you can't tell where it is going and I wouldn't care to anyway. I assume it was my own fault that this book was so far to the limits of my radar but Rachel Kushner should be on the lips of many discussions in the lit world.


Kushner's opening scenes in The Flamethrowers are electric. I picked up the book cold, it was a good deal used and I felt guilty about leaving the store without buying anything for the second time in a week. I tried a couple pages and there was no turning back. War, motorcycles, deserts the 70s art scene, it's the stuff that fueled Hunter S. Thompson, Denis Johnson and Joan Didion. Then, just when you're buckled in, Kushner downshifts, turns down a different road.


The story moves to New York and we get our share of art types, caricatures, people who speak in code and have no names, but then we're learning about them, then they do have names and worries and bills, relationships, friends. It was jarring at first, like if Sal Paradise moved in with Dean Moriarty and they actually had to face domestic problems and wax poetic on life to people who have heard their bullshit before instead of fucking of to shoot guns with whatever alter ego he came up with for William Burroughs, but it came to seem necessary, overdue even, to break up this myth of the art monster, stylish, witty, cool, plugged in, distant from the rest of us. We who say the wrong thing, who fail, fuck up, get rejected and it doesn't mean anything most of the time. Still, she never loses that identity at the core of it, the flamethrowers, she just makes them human.


There is a lot of space in 383 pages to play with form and characters and the story changes shift several times. In the paperback I found--one that looks like it has been properly kicked about which suits this story much better than a pristine new copy--she added an essay at the end about how it became timely by accident. How she was writing about riots and movements already when Occupy was coming into it's own, but the echoes in Black Lives Matter seem even stronger.


I really liked it, I'd say the silly thing of it has a bit of everything, because it feels that way, and it challenges everyone. Maybe you shouldn't be so sensitive and be a bit more daring and artistic, or maybe you need to be checked and realize other people exist and deserve some consideration. Maybe it's just a great, dynamic story and you should read it and come to your own conclusions.



Post Script:


I mentioned I picked this up cold, and I want to reiterate that I knew nothing of the book, New York is mentioned on the back but not the era, so it's a particularly bizare coincidence that I read this right after Patti Smith's Just Kids which was also set in the 70s art scene, but about 5 years early for the most part. Why didn't I give five stars? I don't know. If you're making your decisions because of a stars ranking you can probably skip my page anyway.

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review 2015-12-09 03:03
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Thinking back on Station Eleven in an effort to summarize it I was struck by the ways it seems familiar in the apocalyptic tradition but the story had felt so new in reading. The sensation is like seeing a person from work out on a Saturday night, something so familiar made alien, and, in this case, wonderful. Station Eleven comes not to abolish apocalyptic fiction, but to fulfill it's promise.


It's familiarity shouldn't be a surprise, the collapse of civilization is well-trod territory and, unlike science-fiction proper, it is defined by loss, so the genre is bound to conform to certain strictures: reusable weapons like arrows and knives feature heavily, empty buildings, and danger on all sides. 


What does Station Eleven do differently?


Structurally, it jumps around in time--a lot--but in a way that is easy to follow; author Emily St. John Mandel is consistent in establishing the time in the first few lines when she moves us to a different setting. Juxtaposing the world in-or-around the year 2014 with the world twenty years after the virus, where the heart of the action takes place raises it above the level of a survival story. The effect is that Station Eleven seems to have a lot to say about lives today.


In "Year Twenty" after the virus, we are following Kirsten Raymonde and the Traveling Symphony which visits settlements along the shore of Lake Michigan performing concerts and Shakespeare plays. The central question of the novel is tattooed on Raymonde's arm and painted on one of the horse-drawn pick-up trucks used by the symphony, "Survival is insufficient." (Trekies may recognize this from a 1999 episode of Star Trek: Voyager, which is acknowledged, somewhat self-consciously, by characters in the book.) 


If survival is insufficient, what is? Mandel's image for the post-apocalyptic future is surprisingly hopeful but not very pleasant.  It's a pretty far down the line when we are looking in and there it is pretty clear that there is no rescue coming, but there is some stability returned to this world.


In the "present" we see the night the virus arrives in Toronto where Raymonde, at age eight, is in a production of King Lear with the famous actor Arthur Leander. It is Leander that stands at the crossroads of the various stories: his ex-wife Miranda working on creative project before the virus, the paramedic who ran on the stage to help him watching the world collapse outside his window, his oldest friend Clark Thompson, and Raymonde.


Miranda's stories provide some of the best passages of the novel, meditations on life, love, work, legacy, growing up and creativity. Her chapters belong to her alone. She is not in the major plot points, not in person anyway, though she has a presence throughout the story which is worth a post all its own.


We are told little about the violent first year, except that it was very violent. For those who made it through, there is a semblance of normalcy in year twenty, and with that people seem ready to wonder if there is more to life, if survival is, in fact, "insufficient."  One man has started a library and a newspaper he distributes in his town and shares with travelers to spread beyond. There is the Traveling Symphony, small schools have been organized, another man has rigged a stationary bike to power a laptop, even the cult they encounter suggests a thirst for something more to aspire to than making it through the next day.


I have encountered endings in recent years that have bothered me in a way I have had trouble articulating ... or writing, as the case may be. Station Eleven has proved a good counterpoint to those. Coincidences and unlikely situations come with the territory, and in Station Eleven they feel earned. That is not to say there is no surprises, just that those turns make you say, "Of course!" not "WTF?" The breadcrumbs are there through the story, otherwise insignificant details that make it a process of discovery and show forethought.


Four and a half stars, enjoy.

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