Halfway through my first reading of ‘Liberation Day’, the 63-page title novella of George Saunders’s new collection, a man appears to me. He is not George Saunders exactly – an old version maybe, or a could-have-been. He is speaking the story, or writing it, or daydreaming it at a desk in an empty classroom. He is figuring it out, living in the excitement of it, piling formal solution on formal solution. Perhaps he, though a level-headed man, has gone somewhat off his nut from knowing so much about American history. Perhaps he, though a principled man, is having an after-hours affair with another teacher, called Deborah. He is known, adored, famous equally for getting too much spit in his mouth and being a poet of second-tier cusses – the word ‘crap’ in particular. This is not the adult world; it isn’t even high school. His students are ten, eleven, twelve. Their imaginations are intact, so is his; history gets worse every year, but still he loves it; he races back and forth in front of the room, sweat stains occasionally flashing under his arms, gesturing in a way that could never be Italian. The bell rings. The students file back in. He calls roll: Daryl Derek Randy Kevin. He divides the classroom in two. We are going to fight the Civil War again.
Liberation Day, down to the title, is a spiritual successor to Saunders’s last collection, 2013’s Tenth of December. (That long ago, really? Well, he was busy becoming an international institution.) At first, it doesn’t seem to progress much beyond those stories. Being something of a desk guy, Saunders works from templates: Rat Named Kyle Trapped in America-Themed Diorama That Is Wired to Electrocute Him, at the End He Gets a Four-Cent Raise; Loser Must Save a Ten-Year-Old Boy from Death; Frantic Forty-Car-Pile-Up of an Inner Monologue; Keeping Up with the Joneses, Dystopia Edition; Teens in a Lab. It’s been a while since we had a writer so widely revered who has such a limited range, though it sometimes jumps high above itself.
He has received, in the language of the title story, a few new Mods. The actors of ‘Liberation Day’ are down-on-their-luck Americans who have agreed to have their pasts erased, their voices overridden and their bodies subjected to the manipulations of one Mr Untermeyer, who seems dreamed up to answer the question, ‘What if Ken Burns were evil?’ The Speakers, as Mr Untermeyer calls them, hang on his Speaking Wall, pinioned in the shape of the letter X, and here they perform dramatic retellings of historical events for Mr U’s suburban dinner guests. In the modern mode, the story incorporates its own criticism, in the form of Mr Untermeyer’s Adult Son Mike. ‘Have fun choreographing your reactionary History Channel bullshit,’ ASM jeers at his father, as the Speakers rehearse for a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand. ‘Which, by the way, seems to be badly neglecting the Indigenous perspective.’ So, ‘in an hour or so, Mr U returns, bearing history books. Sitting cross-legged near the Mod, he laboriously hand-inputs much new material intended to address adult son Mike’s critique re the paucity of Indigenous accounts.’
Now comes something more interesting: the Pulse. The Pulse is described by our narrator, a Speaker called Jeremy, as he enters into the performance, melts into his characters and begins really speaking their lines. ‘Once the Pulse is fully upon you, here will come your words, not intended by, but nevertheless flowing through you.’ The Pulse is what George Saunders feels as he approaches the climax of these stories; the Pulse is not to be trusted, but we trust it anyway. It is oratory, it is the rhythms of the Bible, the sentences of Lincoln’s speeches, the gallop of music, hot air, yes, and elevation. Suddenly the human tongue is no longer in our mouths, but a flame flickering over our heads. What does it matter to Jeremy, when the Pulse fills him, that he is in the service of kings and oppressors? He is singing America, with a big bare Whitman chest. Watch for the Pulse, Saunders warns, while riding it.
‘The Mom of Bold Action’, which immediately follows this story, stands out as a failure. Maybe if it had been half the length, or if the mom had sounded like a mom, or like a writer, or if Saunders didn’t seem so afraid of giving a physical description of anyone – afraid of the violence of compression, even. As it is, you wait a long time for the guest with rabies to show up, which eventually happens in the form of fucked-up cousin Ricky.
Who, on the day he was supposed to get married, had gotten wasted and thrown a tyre iron through the window of a sporting-goods store and gone inside to sleep it off. They’d found him next morning, a catcher’s mitt on each hand. Ricky had gotten three girls pregnant in the same month and, in a fight with two of their dads at the same time, had broken one dad’s nose and had his ribs broken by the other.
Ahhhh, Ricky, you think. I know Rickys, there was a time in my life when I was surrounded by Rickys. Then the story becomes about itself, about forgiveness. The Mom of Bold Action, who has, through her awful and unnuanced writing, caused her husband to attack the wrong ex-hippie for crimes against their son, imagines a beam of forgiveness-seeking light shooting out of her forehead,
charged with the notion I am so sorry, that travelled across town and crossed the river and roamed through the woods until it found the two guys and, having briefly paused above them because they looked so damned similar, entered the innocent one. Instantly he knew her … And there it was: forgiveness. That’s what forgiveness was. He was her. Being her, he got it all, saw just how the whole thing had happened.
How could he be mad at her when he was her?
Then a beam shoots out of his forehead and seeks her forgiveness in return.
You forgave Ricky, the beam said.
Your guy’s no Ricky, she said.
Ricky was worse, the beam said.
Well, she said. If you knew Ricky.
That’s as close as we come to the reality that has stung him into writing this story: we do love our Rickys, even though they are worse.
‘The Mom of Bold Action’ is one of those stories, which have appeared from time to time since In Persuasion Nation (2006), that manifests a withdrawal of Saunders’s strength. The kinder his reception, the more a bold, blinking question has come to the fore: God has willed my switch to go Sicko Mode, is there an ethical problem in going Sicko Mode? Maybe, but you’re the one who can do this – the one who recurs over and over in your stories, pacing back and forth on the riverbank, raising the tyre iron over the raccoon, showing your unit to feed your family: the guy in a holy agony of being the only one who can do this.
Saunders’s ideal narrator still wears a series of clamps: one on his tongue, to remove articles from his speech; one on his neck to prevent him from looking up at the sky; one on his peen, to prevent him from getting his Bone on. ‘I’ll just see what Above is like,’ says Rolph in ‘Ghoul’, ‘witnessing for myself some of what we were taught in Geography, e.g. candy stores, viaducts, rain, boulevards, football “tailgate” parties, hiking up mountains, tanning poolside, kissing one’s girl in something called “parking area behind Safeway”.’ Unusually for Saunders’s theme-park stories, the one in ‘Ghoul’ is not easily visualised, being a combination of Hell and ordinary America. In America, we are in the diorama, we are in the toy world, wearing costumes, re-enacting morning-afternoon-nighttime rituals. ‘What new life might we now begin, free of the prospect of ever being Visited? Who might we become, sans roles? Towards what more generous purpose might we direct our considerable, until-now-misspent energies?’
‘A Thing at Work’ is an oddity, a workplace story told so straight that it actually becomes invisible; I wrote three paragraphs about it and then forgot to include them. ‘Mother’s Day’, however, introduces a new formula: Old Hoes Look Back on Life. He’s pretty comfortable being an old hoe. If the Mom of Bold Action is a blank rectangle on two legs – possibly Saunders is too much of a wife-respecter to fully inhabit a 40-year-old mom – the hoes seem livelier, doing it every which way and getting groped in the mums. It’s always fun when he allows sex in his stories, though admittedly you are sitting there waiting for someone to have a heart event. Which she duly does, but then her hands are glowing red and little beings are thronging round her and he is back in his element: the body going to pieces, the place where things get strange.
Both ‘Elliott Spencer’ and ‘Liberation Day’ bear marks of the floating fragmentary language of Lincoln in the Bardo; the hangover of writing that book must have been tremendous. One of Saunders’s classic templates hinges on the question: what if we did this instead of sending people to prison? But what was once futuristic now seems quaint, almost retro, for now we see that there is no future where we do not send people to the same prison we have always sent them, no Mods. In ‘Elliott Spencer’, a wino has been rounded up, mindwiped (where is this mindwiping technology, by the way? Can we get some over here?), and made to participate in protests near the ChickenFuego, shouting at the other side ‘Bastard Turd Creep Idiot’. Saunders is not a subtle writer, as he has said. Still, this is one of his most successful stories about the climate, because it centres wholly on Elliott. We can see him, with his agespot, and we can hear him in his own language: O, please, wine.
Politics, and particularly presidents, give Saunders the yips, all the way back to The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005). Wisely, he navigates away from the Guy himself, understanding that the best you can do with Donald Trump is to sound almost as weird as he does. The closest we get is in ‘Love Letter’, a story that takes the form of a letter from a ‘GPa’ about the world he has made for his grandson: ‘It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, something that had been with us literally every day of our lives.’ As I often think when I pass one of those lawns with ‘In This House We Believe in SCIENCE’ signs all over it: I just feel like we’re going to need something stronger than that.
Anyway, you know we’re in turbulent times when they want to put this on your jacket copy. The implication being that you are the one for the moment. Saunders isn’t, and he knows he isn’t. So what becomes of the gold-hearted satirist in a time like – well, the present? What do you do about being not-quite-the-right-one for the moment, by which I mean not a man, or a –––– man, but someone who believes that most Daryls are decent? When all the formal solutions you have developed – either the ones that leap to your fingertips through instinct or the ones you have wrenched out of the poverties and privilege of your own life – hinge on the redeemability of a guy called Brad? Then again, dispatches from a conflict in progress will always be hazier, less shapely. The Civil War of the past is more comfortable, and we know it better, don’t we?
The alternative title of a first short-story collection is always ‘Stories for ME You Doubting Fucks!’ which means there is a quality to them that is missing from subsequent books. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which appeared in 1996, this quality is so forceful that it strides across the landscape as an actual figure. The setting is the Chicago of Saunders’s youth: stockyards and industrial smoke and metaphors for the moon, which ‘comes up over Delectable Videos like a fat man withdrawing himself from a lake’. The milieu rises from underneath, making a skyline of his sentences. Chicago is a funny city; a cow tried to burn it down once.
Pastoralia – my personal touchstone – came out in 2000, and here we find that the dense detail has become aerated and rhythmic, the thick smoking background thins out and nearly disappears, replaced with the threat of a ToyTowne. We are no longer breathing the shared air of uncles, whose speech imprinted itself so firmly on our own. The city, with lives piled up on one another, becomes suburban, but the figure still paces round it, with the frenzied forty-car-pile-up of the internal monologue in his head. ‘I find myself thinking of a guy standing in a field in the year 1200 doing whatever it is people in 1200 did while standing in fields,’ Saunders writes in ‘The Braindead Megaphone’. ‘I’m thinking about his mind, wondering what’s in it. What’s he talking about in that tape-loop in his head? Who’s he arguing with? From whom is he defending himself, to whom is he rationalising his actions?’ It’s that internal argument that produces progress, experiment, innovation. A sweatiness inside and some perceived enemy, against which he writes everything, even his name on the board.
Saunders’s paradise of noticing must have been sometime in the early to mid-1980s, full of paperclips and co-workers called Randy and Gloria. The break-room coffee sharpened him until he shone, and his notebook was filled with little phrases like Sucks for you and Well but still. Low ceilings and the maddening hum of some appliance and wrestling on TV on Sunday mornings – not the candy colours of our modern interpretations, but the colour of a McDonald’s coffee with half a powdered creamer stirred in. ‘It gets me going somehow when I stumble onto something that has paucity at the heart of it,’ Saunders says in a conversation with David Sedaris included at the end of Tenth of December.
Why is his work – winner of the Booker Prize, lauded in every conceivable quarter – still attended by the scent of failure? It must be, in order that he can overcome. At some point, the source of poignancy stopped being the characters, and started being the desire of the stories to rise above themselves. They wanted a little more than they had, than they could ever have. They could feel their strength, if they were just given a chance, they could be more than Daryls, Dereks, Kyles …
The question, perhaps, is what is a guy for? What do you do with all this … all this heroism in the body? All this ableness? These bursts of energy that go nowhere? This invention? These big words I just learned? These moves? Well, 150 years ago, you would be fighting the Civil War, on the right side of course, and at least you would have had something to do; in between the waiting, and the writing letters home, there would be bursts lit by pink light. In a way, wasn’t that a better life for the body so full of strength, so capable of saving JonBenét?
What is a guy for? It’s a religious question. The teacher is maybe a Buddhist now, but he grew up going to St Damian’s, and growing up going to St Damian’s is a hard thing to shed. Those statues in alcoves stay with you, those shadows thrown upwards by candles, on stone. The window by your desk is a page for the mind, which is a machine for the production of scenarios, which carry you over and over to the edge of that cliff, the site of the primal scene. Because even guys from Illinois get a primal scene. There is water, and a winter coat, and a need for someone to tell him he did good, did beautiful, did perfect. Tell him that, and he can tell someone else; can grow up to be a teacher, can tell us.
‘He was an altar boy whose skin tore like paper,’ Saunders writes in ‘Isabelle’ from CivilWarLand. ‘The nuns said that because of his affliction he didn’t have to kneel through Stations but he did anyway and offered it up to the Lord whenever he bled through his pants.’ That’s pretty specific, I remember thinking, as one who has knelt through many Stations, and was not much surprised when I came across this quote, from an interview with Image:
As a kid I had this skin condition where I’d get cuts really easily, and I played football. My knees and ankles were always open wounds. We’d do the Stations of the Cross, and you’d have to kneel for a long time, and these sores would open up and start to ooze and sting. Very uncomfortable, very embarrassing. I remember talking with a nun about this problem, and her advice was, ‘Offer it up to the Lord.’
Trying to trap me into writing a big Catholic thing, eh? Well, I won’t, except to say that we probably have a few of the same voices in our heads.
When I was young, though I couldn’t even articulate it, I was moved by the idea of Jesus as this incredibly present, accepting being who was also able to roll with things. He would say, ‘So, you’re a prostitute? Cool, no problem, I accept you.’ I’ve always felt that if you had that kind of unconditional love for everyone and everything, you would be so powerful.
Lincoln in the Bardo I first opened over a dish of Japanese pickles while I was snowed in at a conference in Minneapolis. Besides that, there was nothing to do but visit the Wheat Museum. The old George Saunders would have liked that, I thought, but he was someone new now. The history teacher paced outside in the snow, gesturing in a way that could never be Italian. A fine flour shook down from the sky, from great sacks. Part of what he taught me was the integration of gifts, the sudden thrown switch of a different setting.
But the snow subsided and I flew back home and I did not pick up the book again. Saunders’s subject was failure, but not that kind; I couldn’t bear to watch him at the front of a classroom, failing to get through to me for the very first time. Did I fear he wasn’t up to it, as he finally took on the thing itself, the forces at work in the primal scene? Was I supposed to wait to read it until I had seen a child die? ‘Belinda French, Baby. Remember her?’ Then I did not want to spend time there. Now I do.
I mentioned his limited range. Lincoln in the Bardo is the jump. His way into the novel was voice. So beautiful, so stately, unfolding step by step the rules of the dance, and then, as one corpse explains, ‘Sometimes we might poop a bit if we are fresh.’ This inspiration carries us through the next pages, and then we are off. Knowing that his poetry tends to the purple, he puts it in other mouths. He is a mimic: of writers, when he works in the third person, and of people, when he works in the first. We get both here. And spooky – how could I say it wasn’t like that, when phrases ring in it that really happened to me.
What, Saunders attempts to answer himself, do you do with your love of American history? Where to put the self that visits graveyards in other cities, on vacation, even putting off the pleasurable sightseeing of wife and children to kneel down and do a grave-rubbing in crayon? He works best in small biodomes, and what better than a cemetery? We can visualise it as a cross between Flatland and Lives of the Saints – here things spilling, there contained; peace on the faces of the Circles, the Triangles yawing, grimacing.
Is there ever anything sham about it, I sometimes wondered reading Tenth of December, moving toward one of his deaths or near-deaths. A cheapness? There was a whiff of robin funerals, of that kid who wants to feel the feeling, something you don’t get with, say, Flannery O’Connor, who might actually have killed people. Then again, robin funerals are kind of the business: a little thing to put in a box, so that the rest of us can be glad to feel alive.
Short fiction is a cruel form. It is life in miniature: not enough time. Some of its best practitioners have been cruel, or doctors in an age when we took legs off with hacksaws. It is hard to keep giving readers that edge they can brace against, catch their breath, say OK, all right, you know it and I know it. It is hard, after experiencing their love, to stop yourself from showing up to rescue your readers too soon. But despite the near infinite space of the novel, he keeps that edge nearly the whole way through. Lincoln in the Bardo is so good because it refuses to spare us, but in this it holds the hand of history: Willie Lincoln really died. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo must end with a mistake. The gallop that has been so smooth throughout, which is balanced by this bent towards cruelty and by the desire to redress, must falter finally with Willie, and must falter with Thomas Havens.
Havens is one of the host whose speech makes up the patterns of Lincoln in the Bardo. They are motley, their vernaculars range from low to high, from timid to enraged to [redacted], in the case of poor abused Litzie. The difference is the great strength of the novel, but from the beginning we feel a gap in Saunders’s treatment of the disreputable barons, who get all the good lines, and of the enslaved Thomas Havens, who ‘was (I felt, for the most part) living simply an exaggerated version of any man’s life’. Though the voice of resistance in his mind was never quite silenced, ‘I had my moments,’ he tells us.
My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments.
Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most.
The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.
Towards the end, when Lincoln emerges from church, Mrs Francis Hodge tells what she sees: ‘Near the front gate stood Mr Havens, square in that white man’s path, as I had been, but doing, then, something I had not the nerve (nor desire) to do.’ This line feels alive, with nerve, with desire. It just seems, when she places Thomas Havens ‘square in that white man’s path’, that something interesting is going to happen; he is going to be released into something other than reverence. Here, I think, a genre rule applies: if you are going to write a character into enslavement, you better give him something good to do – something that is not just the narrative equivalent of promising to free him on your deathbed. Getting to hitch a lift inside Lincoln, while filling him with images of the plight of your people? No. Not weird enough, not human enough, not enough enough. Lacks the dangling button on the sleeve of someone’s coat.
Then there is Willie. Because the god of this world is good, he cannot help giving us that moment of (false?) comfort: Willie getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed, when really it must have ended – you know it and I know it – with the lingering of his little grey suit. Paradoxically, the answer is almost never to give in to the Pulse, but to live in the smallest detail. But this is almost beyond human strength. When that Mistake approaches us, on wings, we’re going to make it every time.
Little detour about A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which makes use of the class on the Russian short story that Saunders has been teaching for the last twenty plus years at Syracuse University. There is an uneasy tension between this book and Saunders’s ability to see conference-room-at-the-Hilton guys so clearly. If you’re a normal person, the first time you set foot in a classroom you will hear a voice that says: ‘It is wrong to take their money.’ Other claims rise up to drown out this voice – what holier thing than the study of literature; talent cannot be taught, but the fundamentals can; they are paying for a circle of protected time – and all of them are true, but the voice is loud, louder than literature, and grows louder when you see a student so full of desire for her own life that she can barely breathe, and you taking money for it. What will she do? Is there a world for her? Are you part of the cheat, have you been promoted to middle management?
According to that formula, Saunders is no longer one of the White Hats, Beginning to Begin, no longer even one of the Gold Hats, who have mastered the art of living, but Tom Rodgers himself, the name on the marquee. What is more useful than a class, he has always known, is a story about someone who attends it, walks home heliated with what they have heard, then has to stumble back through the door into her own life.
I think Saunders heard that voice. He became sober, anxious, in response – heavy with responsibility, nearly jokeless. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain there is an uncomfortable emphasis on things ‘paying off’ and ‘earning their keep’. ‘When all is said and done, what do you claim to live by, story? I need to know this so I can see how well your non-normative aspects are serving the heart of you.’ Saying things about the way that, after reading Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’, your mind ‘has been filled with a new friend, Maya’. The truth breaks – he isn’t Tom Rodgers at all, he’s Winky, always getting weird holy looks on his face at bad times, coming out with sentences that might as well be stitched on pillows. ‘A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals … We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.’ No! No!! We keep reading because we are watching someone do something insane! We write stories to enact little robin funerals, and we read stories to hurt ourselves with the world, and he knows this – he is the guy we go to to know this. Don’t abdicate your throne of ten-year-old boy skulls, man! Then again, I’m of the school that thinks teachers should be weird and sort of hate you. Elizabeth Bishop comes to class, her eczema is very bad that day, she reads your poem and closes her eyes.
Still, it sheds light. ‘Sparrow’, a third-person story from Liberation Day that is lovely on the first read and a little condescending on the second, now appears part of a decades-long attempt to understand Chekhov’s story ‘The Darling’. And it raises questions: why is Saunders so much more interesting about Turgenev’s ‘The Singers’ than about Gogol’s ‘The Nose’, when Gogol would seem his more natural forebear? Most memorably, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain has a great section on Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man’, the story he is always writing in one form or another: one man dies to save the other, in falling snow.
At the end, Saunders introduces a quibble. He feels a lack in the way Tolstoy inhabits Nikita, the servant saved by his master, as we feel a lack in the way he inhabited Thomas Havens perhaps. But this isn’t just a technical problem; it can’t be solved by granting a character leave to speak for two pages. ‘Once,’ he writes, ‘I was teaching a flawed but considerable Gogol story called “Nevsky Prospect” and a student said she didn’t like it because it was sexist.’ ‘Then I asked the class to imagine the story if Gogol had kept things fair, by allowing the woman her own internal monologue. There followed a bit of silence and then a collective sigh/smile, as we all, at once, saw the better story it could have been: just as dark and strange, but funnier and more honest.’ No. Jesus Christ. If he’s sexist, do we want him to write her a monologue? Do we really want to give Nikita two pages, so he can talk about how grateful he is? For Nikita, he writes,
doesn’t seem grateful to Vasili. He doesn’t think of Vasili at all.
Which is … strange. If a person gives his life to save another person, and the saved person never thinks about it, doesn’t appear grateful, seems unchanged by it, it makes us wonder about the value of the sacrifice. It also makes us wonder about the person saved.
But this is one of the things about ‘Master and Man’ that lifts it into the realm of the insoluble, where real life and great stories live – shaggy ones, almost always, that grow real human hair. (‘That’s the kind of story I want to write,’ he says of ‘Master and Man’, ‘the kind that stops being writing and starts being life.’) The refusal to be grateful is what demonstrates his equality to Vasili – the freedom to be oblivious, to be unthinking, to feel himself the centre of the universe. To take it for granted that a man lay over him like a coat to save his life.
And isn’t it all here – Tolstoy’s knowledge of Nikita’s life and personhood? Isn’t it contained in this: ‘When he had been brought to, he felt sure that he was already dead and that what was taking place with him was no longer happening in this world but in the next.’ You don’t need two pages, all you need is Nikita waking, believing he is dead, and being surprised that in that other world peasants would still have the same kind of body.
There are a number of stories in Saunders’s earlier work that were try-outs for Lincoln in the Bardo: ‘CommComm’, from In Persuasion Nation, ‘Sea Oak’, from Pastoralia, and even ‘The Wavemaker Falters’, from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There is a place you go to after you die, for a while, that is nothing more or less than your own body. Call it the Worm Interlude. The Worm Interlude is Aunt Bernie returned from the grave – make a movie of ‘Sea Oak’, you cowards! – getting goo all over her niece’s bras. ‘I never had a nice sexy bra,’ Bernie says, when the niece complains. It is Clive, the boy squashed in the Wavemaker, who appears at night to tell about what his future would have been like: trips to Mexico, red-haired tramps and too-hot sauces. ‘Near dawn he sighs, tucks in the parts of his body that have been gradually leaking out over the course of the night, pats my neck with his cold little palm, and tells me to have a nice day.’ The Worm Interlude is succeeded, in Saunders’s later work, by a lifting and a racing through the sky of human consciousness. ‘CommComm’ ends:
Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below, and we hear their prayers, grievances, their million signals of loss. Secret doubts shoot up like tracers, we sample them as we fly through: a woman with a too-big nose, a man who hasn’t closed a sale in months, a kid who’s worn the same stained shirt three days straight, two sisters worried about a third who keeps saying she wants to die. All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?
Back to the classroom, and to ‘Liberation Day’. Here is something that is really about writing – about writing Lincoln in the Bardo specifically, about writing generally. It is about the monologue rising in the mouth, and the approach of prolixity, the Pulse. It is a story about the chorus, and giving everyone two pages; about remediation, about history, about wrapping a bandage on the leg of what really happened. At the end of Lincoln in the Bardo, as he tries to describe what it is to be Thomas Havens, we find him really describing what it is to be Lincoln – and not Lincoln as he was, but Lincoln as Saunders would have liked him to be, a cloud of consciousness through which shapes pass, that knows somehow the colour of Litzie’s dress. If you could care, really care, for everyone, you would be so powerful. So construct a moral panopticon, a God-place, a story that sees every side of the story at once.
Jeremy, in ‘Liberation Day’, is unique among the Speakers for truly believing he is born to this work. He likes to live within his Topic beforehand, to investigate the colour of the canoes and the direction of the current. When information floods him, he swirls it in his mouth like wine.
The Pulse from a Knowledge Mod, we find, is fatter, with stinging edge, a bit of a spiky pillow. It opens out nicely on the back end, like a forced jig-dancing at the end of a long and tedious day.
And suddenly we know so much. About ‘Battle of the Little Big Horn’. Also known as ‘Custer’s Fight’. Or, popularly, ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.
The Speakers, previously ignorant, now know the names of the horses ridden into battle. They are
given facts. Real facts. Which are helpful. In making compelling structure. It is like walking down a tight hallway, constrained on either side by grey walls of fact. It is like stumbling through a desert and suddenly a mist of knowledge rains down composed of the exact details you have been craving but did not previously know you craved.
The result, Jeremy says, is something like a story. And after it is over, and all Speaking stops, and all Singing stops, the performers lapse into silence and stillness and resume their X-shapes on the Wall. ‘We know very well how powerful we have been.’
There is something insoluble here. He is telling us that you cannot trust the Pulse – this is the fact that must be continually learned. Your feeling (you are, after all, doing this to feel the feeling) has nothing to do with whether it is good, just as your desire to be good cannot be worked out in fiction. But in those moments it does come to you what a guy is for, and you are covered in glory; it comes to you what it is to be a cloud of consciousness, with lives moving through you and that weird holy look on your face. The body lies far below you, in parts, the Worm Interlude – real site of your genius – passes into another phase, one you seem to remember from before you were born. ‘Where were you, before you came here?’
Heaven, Jeremy offers.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.