For a president who does not read, or at least read books, Donald Trump has inspired an abundance of literary commentary. In this left-right media genre, critic after anti-Trump columnist recommends the books “essential” to understanding the political hour, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Origins of Totalitarianism, or The Magic Mountain. But the most suggestive addition to the syllabus is the Harry Potter franchise, with Trump cast as the dark lord Voldemort and liberals as the self-evidently righteous wizard boarding school that bands together to defeat evil. How fitting, somehow, that the same adults who knew Trump would lose, and then were emotionally damaged when he did not, would turn to books meant for children to apprehend reality. Sad!
This ages-nine-and-up coping mechanism does capture something significant about political and literary culture, circa 2017. Too much of politics, and of human experience, is being fitted into neat good–bad binaries that appeal to feelings and status, not to the accurate representation of the world. Nor is appreciation for contingency, complication, and the unexpected highly valued.
George Saunders is the Donald Trump of new fiction.
George Saunders is the Donald Trump of new fiction. Though the kind of people who revere Saunders love him almost as much as they are appalled by Trump, both figures provoke reactions far in excess of the merits. The short-story author and the president aren’t judged, disinterestedly, on their strengths, weaknesses, and ambiguities but according to preconceived narratives, which are predictable and therefore boring. Their reputations, in other words, are inflated and undeserved, yet everyone keeps kicking in unison like a line of Rockettes.
In Saunders’s case, the swoons of consensus enchantment are letting him get away with murder, critically speaking. He is often canonized as “the master” of the short story, as if he is not merely an heir to Henry James but the inventor of the form. Yet his high-concept tales are remarkably formulaic, even manipulative. As a stylist, Saunders blends satire and pathos to create surreal visions that retain discernable verisimilitude. Lovable underdogs or hard-luck washouts—workers at a Civil War re-enactment theme park, convicts forced to test psychotropic drugs—are caught up in the thresher of late capitalism. Then his narratives build toward the same inevitable life-affirming epiphanies, oracular moments of understanding and human connection.
Saunders’s largest ambition is to be “moving,” to generate sensations of compassion, benevolence, tenderness, empathy. He writes sentimental parables for people who want to believe in goodness and redemption. His work isn’t meant to be read and thought about, and coolly analyzed, but rather succumbed to—felt.
Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders’s first novel and the major event of the spring publishing season. The premise and internal logic are—well, weird. The sixteenth president endures extreme sorrow after the death of his beloved third son, Willie, who was eleven years old when he fell ill with consumption in 1862, one of the worst years for the union. To this historical record, Saunders adds ghosts.
Willie’s spirit becomes ensnared in the bardo, a liminal dimension between death and rebirth in Tibetan-Buddhist theology. The site is Georgetown’s Oak Hill cemetery, which is populated with the manifestations of the dead, who obey rules. The ghosts move invisibly on their own plane, but they can see and read the minds of the living who enter their necropolis. They are in the bardo because they are in wilful denial, overcome by the desires they failed to satisfy while alive but knowing their former lifetimes only dimly as “that previous place,” their graveyard as a temporary “hospital-yard.” The ghosts cannot leave for their next earthly passage until they accept their true condition.
Bardo is told in the first-person polyphonic by dozens of apparitions, speaking in nineteenth-century genteelisms; the effect is of a transcript of a supernatural Ken Burns documentary. Each vignette is another sad sack on whose part Saunders demands sympathy. Hans Vollman was killed, by a falling ceiling beam, before consummating his marriage. Roger Bevins III slashed his wrists after his closeted gay lover told him that he intended to “live correctly”:
Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing . . .
Of course, he died.
Willie, upon arrival, tells the ghosts that “I feel I am to wait,” believing that his great-man father will come and return him to the less mythopoetic realm. This violates another rule, prohibiting children from loitering for too long in the bardo. If they wait, they are attacked by demons. “The architect of this place” has decided that “to be a child and to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here is, in this place, a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” Bevins explains. The spirit of a girl-ghost who delayed leaving already has been obliterated by the attacks and she manifests as “a sort of horrid blackened furnace,” a “terrible hag gorging on black cake,” and other disfigurations.
The effect is of a transcript of a supernatural Ken Burns documentary.
Lincoln does return to the crypt, on the night of Willie’s funeral, setting up a battle over his immortal soul. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, his presence throws Willie into a holding pattern, and the ghosts must repulse the demons and prevent his eternal damnation. A shattered Lincoln, meanwhile, submits to the agonies of grief. “He emitted a single, heartrending sob,” notes Vollman—merely one instance among many in a pornography of pain and anguish that Willie and the ghosts witness.
Never forget that “the architect of this place” is Saunders. Serious fiction’s purpose is to imagine ourselves into the lives and circumstances of others, but there are limits. Chronicling the regrets of a suicide or even the anguish of a dead son are fair-enough game. Saunders has devised a cosmology whose drama is whether a child will be tortured to death a second time in the afterlife. Vicarious misery is a form of personal consumption, and if you can’t wring “fellow-feeling,” to use the period phrase, out of such stacked material, consider another mfa program.
On schedule, catharsis arrives in the bardo. Lincoln meditates on mortality and learns to say goodbye, lending him the determination to win the War of the Rebellion. Willie mind-melds with his father as he remembers his, Willie’s, sickness and death, which conducts him toward a realization about the finality of his corporeal existence. “Dead,” he yells. “Everyone, we are dead! . . . Look, join me. Everyone! Why stay? There’s nothing to it. We’re done. Don’t you see?” Willie’s burst of candor permits Vollman, Bevins, and the other ghosts to disillusion themselves, and thus to be exfiltrated from Oak Hill too.
In book-tour interviews, Saunders has historicized Trump as “the anti-Lincoln” and declared, “I think Lincoln would recognize and be very strongly against the Trump movement, because it’s simply anti-American to be so damned scared all the time.” Except Lincoln can’t join the resistance, because he’s been dead for a century and a half.
Trump has so occluded the national imagination that unrelated Trump opinions now suffuse formerly politics-free venues—the sports pages, commercial advertising, The New Criterion’s “Fiction chronicle,” even restaurant reviews. The novel is a slower medium but won’t be long behind. Just as the search for “the 9/11 novel” inspired dozens of unreadable books and plausibly deforested millions of acres until Claire Messud wrote The Emperor’s Children and Joseph O’Neill Netherland, the coming attempts to discover “the Trump novel” will beget a wasteland of artistic failure.
Ali Smith offers a preview with Autumn, though her subject is that other great jolt to elite assumptions and certainties: Brexit. The novel, which must have been conceived and composed in fewer than nine months, and the speed-writing shows, is a panic attack in print.
Autumn takes place in the summer (get it?) of 2016, soon after the British public voted to Leave the European Union. The alleged irony of the title is the first indication that this is the arc of a person who cannot come to grips with an undesired political outcome. The second is the opening line: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” In case you missed it, Smith is playing on Dickens.
After the vote, a thirty-something art lecturer named Elisabeth reels in London, “bereaved and shocked.” Naturally, she is reading Brave New World to console herself, and she thinks to brace herself against the apocalypse. The other character is the subconscious of her much older friend, Daniel, now comatose and dying of dementia. He believes he is becoming a tree, and if he were felled and pulped so Autumn could be published, it would be a mercy killing.
On top of her grievances—job insecurity, her unsatisfactory flat, academic slights—Elisabeth has important feelings about Brexit. “I’m tired of liars,” she raves. “I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. . . . I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”
Spending every second of existence obsessing about politics must be exhausting.
Spending every second of existence obsessing about politics must be exhausting, and some people seem to like being unhappy and anxious—an affliction that can’t be healthy, as Elisabeth proves by taking out her frustrations on random service personnel, such as clerks at the passport office and multiple staffers at Daniel’s hospice. She’s probably also rude to waiters, splits the check based only on what she ordered, and leaves lousy tips. That’ll show ’em.
Autumn could be a study in psychological crackup and an individual renouncing her membership in society, if only Smith didn’t transparently share Elisabeth’s preoccupations. Her surrogate watches a Leave pundit on TV tell a Remain pundit: “Get over it. Grow up. Your time’s over. Democracy. You lost.” Elisabeth, one of the sore losers, muses: “It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming a dialogue. It is the end of dialogue.” (So democracy is a bottle, a weapon, a time of saying stuff, and an end.) Smith melodramatizes this sentiment with Daniel’s disease: he hallucinates a controlling image of a beach covered with dead bodies, while vacationers “under parasols” are “holidaying up the shore,” indifferent to “the tide-dumped dead.”
Assigning such callousness to the victors of an election is overwrought, and solipsistic. A pro-Brexit assailant didn’t threaten anyone with a glass shiv, really, and England’s coasts aren’t strewn with corpses. The death toll of Brexit so far is zero. In a popular referendum, one side or the other has to win, and a majority of British citizens reached a different conclusion than Smith/Elisabeth about how to govern themselves. The results are uncertain, and could prove good or bad, but politics is never permanent. Divisions will intensify and one day dissolve, coalitions will form and then collapse, new problems will emerge, different interests will be reconciled; and the whole time, real nonpolitical life abides—or Remains.
Smith has threatened that Autumn is the first volume of a quartet, pegged to the seasons. Perhaps in the next installment Elisabeth will decide to holiday somewhere in America, in order to be terrorized by the fall months ahead of Election Day. Winter is coming.
Trump may be so distressing in some precincts because his outlook solidified in that prehistory when Harry Potter was not a cultural influence. Millions of young readers, and their parents, have now come up reading books and watching movies that encode an ethics of inclusion, diversity, safety, and no-judgment acceptance, and so large a phenomenon was bound to leave cognitive impressions. J. K. Rowling may also share the blame for the inordinate fascination in contemporary lit with childhood trauma. After all, the “boy who lived” after a monster murdered his family is the ultimate ptsd case.
A pair of unsettling thrillers are the latest to take up the theme of surviving adolescent damage, with strikingly similar methods. Both are dispatches from Trump country, the American midwest, both are formally inventive, and both authors successfully produce a mood of intense, pervading menace. Taken together, they make up a bad cop, worse cop routine.
In Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle, Jeremy is a video-store clerk in small-town Iowa, back when an independent vhs business was still a viable concern. Customers returning their tapes complain about brief black-and-white scenes interrupting their rentals. Jeremy investigates: frames of a woman in a barn hooded with a burlap sack, a shot of a woman running down a gravel road under moonlight, close-ups of a body under a tarp toed by a boot, more. The soundtrack is breathing. The opening chapters, before the mystery of the spliced cassettes has been resolved, are gravid with malevolence. “It dovetails nicely with the creeping dread of life in 2017,” observed a book critic for the Des Moines Register, irrelevantly.
Darnielle has a fine place-sense for the woebegone melancholy of prairie, cornrow, farmhouse, and highway, what might be called the rust-belt gothic:
Jeremy could locate magnetic north from practically any place in Stone County, even in the total absence of known landmarks. Knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point in living in Nevada [his Iowa town, akin to Paris, Maine or Las Vegas, New Mexico], possibly of being alive at all. . . . [In movies, actors] only remembered where they were from if they wanted to complain about how awful it was there, or, later, to remember it as a place of infinite promise.
Universal Harvester is also a hillbilly elegy for a type of anachronistic character: “men who didn’t want to make spectacles of themselves, whose need to retain their composure often surpassed their desire to be healed.” People tell each other repeatedly “It’s all right,” even when it is not, which is a device for making it so.
Harvester is told, mostly, in the third-
person omniscient but develops tension with an anonymous, indistinctly sinister first-person narrator who cuts in and out of the text, much like the edits to the tapes. Unfortunately, this potential dissipates once the lo-fi author of the videography is revealed and the running enigmas are broken. Darnielle has written another conventional novel about the foreverlong displacement from early parental abandonment.
Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is the more accomplished, as well as the darker, achievement. One reason is that its childhood horrors are decanted, straight-up, across unsolved crime scenes decades apart. The novel hinges on one of the stranger pre-Trump panics in U.S. history, when otherwise well-adjusted adults became convinced that stalking the country’s youth were underground Satanic syndicates. Children supposedly suppressed the memories of their abuse but could recover mental wounds that never happened with appropriate therapy.
In Chaon’s fifth novel, Dustin is orphaned as a teenager when his free-love parents, aunt, and uncle are shot to death on a Nebraska ranch, with the kids upstairs. In 1983, he testifies sensationally in court against his adoptive brother Rusty, whose sociopathic tendencies included ritual killings of small animals, occult sexual practices, and his enjoyment of heavy metal. Dustin goes on to earn a doctorate in recovered-memory syndrome, later worthless when the science is discredited, but he manages to maintain a passable counseling practice in the Cleveland suburbs.
Near the present, Rusty’s homicide conviction is overturned with exculpatory genetic evidence, Dustin’s wife is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and he acquires a midlife crisis and a new patient called Aqil, a cop on medical leave. Aqil, a paranoid, speculates about secret societies that he says are behind the serial drowning deaths of drunken college men that the police have written off as accidental, complete with photograph-pin-yarn cork boards. Dustin first dismisses this conspiratorialism as post-traumatic stress disorder—the defining malady of the age—but then comes to welcome it as a distraction from his own afflictions. Amid the disorder, the doctor’s youngest, most troubled teenaged son, Aaron, a college dropout, develops growing acquaintances with post-prison Rusty and heroin addiction.
Chaon is a specialist in space-black humor. “Are you boys shooting up?” a mother asks. “I’ve noticed that I’m missing a lot of spoons.” The frat boys’ deaths are disqualified as Darwinian selection, or “auto-assassination.”
There’s no learning, no life lessons, no ablutions, no graces. Sometimes nothing is truer to life.
Like Universal Harvester, Ill Will ’s chronology is fragmentary and elusive, enacting the patterns of memory itself as the brain records stories, and then retells, copies, merges, and otherwise manipulates these neural documents. Chapters end mid-sentence and unpunctuated, other gaps emerge, and some passages are told in the first, second, and third person from paragraph to paragraph. The gathering uncertainty and suspense of Ill Will is that—until the last, calamitous pages—you can’t tell who is good or bad or evil or virtuous. Did Dustin kill his family as a boy and use Rusty as an alibi? Is the college plot a mental disorder, or is Aqil the real killer? Or is Dustin indulging old habits? And what is Rusty’s game, or con? All are united in the belief that “the official story isn’t true” and have “a hard time telling the difference between what was real and what was not real.”
“She suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination—that, in fact, we were only peeping through the keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams,” Dustin’s cousin theorizes. As a book critic for the Boston Globe observed, irrelevantly, “With some of its twists and turns, Ill Will even seems to have anticipated our current world of fake news and ‘alternative facts.’ ”
In the end, the culprit in Kansas was the jealous uncle, not Dustin or Rusty, in a murder-suicide. Aqil sought out Dustin because of his past, to quasi-confess. He is a serial killer, and abducts and kills Austin, Dustin’s son. That’s it. There’s no learning, no life lessons, no ablutions, no graces. Sometimes nothing is truer to life.
Amid this modern malignancy, how pleasurable to be borne back ceaselessly into the past. I’d Die For You collects F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final unpublished and uncollected stories in existence. Most but not all of these pieces were written late in the great modernist’s career, when his celebrity had faded, he no longer wished to be edited, and he was near his death in 1940. fsf was no longer a sad young man, but a sad old man.
The material in this collection trades in mature topics, no less serious than the death of a child. Intelligent teenagers are marooned without jobs or the means to attend college during the Great Depression, poverty sits next to great affluence in New York City, there is despair and divorce and premarital sex, when marriage thereafter began to collapse as a norm. But Fitzgerald’s precision and fineness, even at the depth of his powers, exceeds contemporary writers by miles. If Saunders thinks Trump is no Lincoln—and what president is a Lincoln?—George Saunders is no Scott Fitzgerald.
I’d Die For You includes Fitzgerald’s four famous “medical stories”—“Nightmare,” “What to Do About It,” “Cyclone in Silent Land,” and “The Women in the House,” the best of the lot—written amid Fitzgerald’s psychological decomposition and his wife Zelda’s parallel neurasthenia. They are a reminder of a time when someone could be sent to a sanitarium over something other than the identity of the American president.
1 Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders; Random House, 368 pages, $28.
2 Autumn by Ali Smith; Pantheon, 272 pages, $24.95.
3 Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 214 pages, $25.
4 Ill Will, by Dan Chaon; Ballantine Books, 461 pages, $28.
5 I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel; Scribner, 358 pages, $28.