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Skating on thin ice with George Saunders

interior-saundersPublished in The Age on February 4, 2017

In 2013, in a commencement speech at Syracuse University that has since been published, animated and set to music, George Saunders presented life as a quest to become “more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional,” and above all, kinder. As a writer, he is known for the savage honesty of his satire; as a teacher and public intellectual, for the generosity of his spirit.

I first met him in 2006, the year his third collection of short stories, In Persuasion Nation, was published. It was tactless to ask when he planned to write a novel, but I asked him anyway, just like every other interviewer, every editor, every friend and colleague.

This time, he brought the subject up before the waitress had taken our lunch order: “I was over it. I’d been through that struggle so many times. So when the book started to rear its head, it said ‘I’m not going to be a novel unless you really insist on it. I’m going to be fighting you all the way.’”

Lincoln In The Bardo is a unique, technically audacious feat of story-telling. Ghosts address the reader and talk amongst themselves, in a way station of the afterlife inspired by the Tibetan Book Of The Dead. Extracts from accounts of the US Civil War, some real and others made-up, anchor the narrative.

For years, all Saunders had was an image: Abraham Lincoln in a crypt, talking to the lifeless body of his third son, Willie, who died of typhoid, aged eleven, in February 1862. His attempts to expand on it failed every time, often enough for him to write RUN AWAY, DO NOT TRY on the papers. “Whenever I was feeling happy, or that I’d achieved something, this project would go ‘now?’” he told me, tilting his face up plaintively, like a dog asking to be taken for a walk.

He had come to Manhattan from his home in upstate New York for a photoshoot and some readings to promote the book. “So I got all dressed up.” He gestured at his faded body-warmer, the sort mocked as a life preserver in Back To The Future. His voice, his spectacles and his solicitous manner reminded me of Ned Flanders, without the sanctimony.

Saunders gained a following with astonishingly imaginative, space-dark dystopian fables, but his aim was always to “go to the wall emotionally,” his speciality a belly laugh followed by a punch to the gut. The talking Gene Kelly holograms and foul-mouthed zombie grandmas are the hook: capitalism’s “grace-eroding power” his great theme.

His first book, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, was written between technical reports at the Radian Corporation, and informed by twenty years of struggling to get by, doing menial and occasionally humiliating work. Reading Kurt Vonnegut as a young man taught him that he didn’t need to imitate Ernest Hemingway to write something true. In middle-age, he has become a laureate of the stressed out and beaten down.

With each new collection, he has moved further away from social science fiction, writing fewer tales set in an uncomfortably foreseeable future. Tenth of December, published in January 2014, has laughs and imaginative jolts to keep readers off-balance, but its commitment to realism is striking. The best stories, such as Home, which describes a returning soldier with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder struggling to relate to his family, are told straight.

The fresh language that Saunders employed in his early stories, riffing on corporate memorandums and self-help seminars, is all but gone. The outlook is still bleak, but not hopelessly or farcically so. The wildest digression on the cruelty of consumer society, about girls from the third world strung up like Christmas lights in the gardens of the wealthy, was an old idea.

Saunders said the title story, in which a cancer sufferer is prevented from killing himself by a chance encounter with a lonely boy, gave him the confidence to return to his novel: “When I asked myself why I couldn’t do it, the answers were sad. You’re not comfortable enough with powerful emotion? It was a challenge to say ‘I don’t want to be that guy who goes to his grave saying ‘I was going to write harder stuff but there weren’t enough jokes.’”

In his stories, characters often live in the crack between the lives they were promised and the lives they have, held back by elderly relatives, dependent children, bad luck and their own failings. In the novel, those who elect to remain in the Bardo rather than face judgement are caught in a loop of regrets and grievances.

Inspired by the idea that whatever we’re thinking about when we die will be reflected in the afterlife, Saunders has created a cast of confused spirits trapped between this world and the next, their earthly preoccupations made manifest in physical deformities.

Our inability to get over our hang-ups and neuroses becomes a refusal to let go of life. As the Reverend Everly Thomas, a clergyman turned back from heaven’s gate, puts it: “We had been mothers, fathers… had been husbands of many years, men of import…We had been considerable. Had been loved.”

Saunders is a Nyingma Buddhist, and writing the novel coincided with a period of intense meditation. In one particularly moving passage, Lincoln muses on the terrible fragility of human relationships: “Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.”

In a public conversation with his New Yorker editor, Deborah Treisman, Saunders said financial stability and the sense of achievement that comes from raising two daughters had shifted his focus from the immiserating effects of hardship and status anxiety. In Lincoln In The Bardo, as well as the larger canvas of a novel, he has a new palette to work with: the Civil War, slavery, and the grief of losing a child.

For a long time, he worried that he was writing an unending dream sequence, until he hit upon the idea of lifting passages from the historical sources he was consulting for research and inventing others to fill the gaps. Trying to guess which are genuine is one of the many pleasures of reading the book.

I played this game with Saunders across the table, guessing incorrectly that a cartoon of Lincoln downing champagne as Willie climbs into an open grave – “Father, a Glass Before I Go?” – was published in a 19th century periodical. Nope, Saunders said, but he was pleased that the vicious satire rang true. The La Crosse Democrat did express a wish that “a bold hand will be found to plunge the dagger into the tyrant’s heart for the public welfare,” though.

Saunders spent much of his summer at Donald Trump rallies, drinking in the 21st century invective and talking to Trump’s supporters. His report for the New Yorker was sympathetic and despairing, dismayed by the failures of kindness and lack of empathy that he witnessed, but reluctant to judge. “I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” he concluded. “But I imagine it that way now.”

The Trump article was “a great growth piece,” Saunders told me, but cost him too much time and emotional energy, so he would be sticking to fiction for a while. Quoting Anton Chekhov, he reminded me that art doesn’t have to solve problems: it just has to formulate them correctly.

“I feel there’s a real focusing going on among writers and artists and intellectuals, a real circling of the wagons. It feels pretty good. I’ve never felt more sure that what we do matters,” he said. At least three of the authors praising him on the cover of Lincoln In The Bardo – Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers – have also been moved to write essays about politics recently.

Term had finished at Syracuse, where Saunders teaches, the day before we met, and he was looking forward to being “just a writer again” for the next year and a half, on sabbatical. He hoped that his next novel or play (or epic poem or song cycle) would not take a decade to finish.

“Writers always talk about ‘you need to be challenging yourself’ but it was cool to see that what that really meant was a kind of terror,” he said. “You have to actually go out onto the thin ice, and this was maybe the biggest walk out onto thin ice that I’d ever had the chance to do. Now I’m hoping that the next thing can be as risky as this.”