Jul 20

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

It’s astonishing how much detail, plot and character development Vivek Shanbhag packs into his novella Ghachar Ghochar. Published for the first time in English and beautifully translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, the book is an epic family saga told in less than 30,000 words. On the surface it’s a rags to riches tales as a family just surviving in the suburbs of Bangalore suddenly comes into money after one of the brothers establishes a successful spice company. Almost overnight they go from an ant-infested shack – as aptly described in the blurb – to a mansion which they fill with all sorts of mismatched, but expensive, furniture. This whip-lash transition from poverty to wealth leads our narrator – the younger son – to observe:

It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.

Dig a little deeper and the book is a meditation on self worth. For the younger son, who has never had much in the sense of ambition or lofty dreams, this influx of cash is both a blessing – he can sleep in and wallow in his laziness – and a curse – when he marries his wife, Anita, she expects him to get up and go to work. Our narrator is therefore required to face his own sense of value, a difficult proposition when his family questions his purpose. When they were poor he at least could help in the slaughtering of ants that were overwhelming the house. Our narrator, therefore, looks for self worth in his relationship with his wife. The day he gets married to Anita is filled with anticipation, excitement and lust. And yet what becomes clear is that our narrator isn’t just in it for the sex, though that’s certainly appreciated. What he’s looking for, what he desires, what he feels will give his life meaning is having someone outside his family who loves him unreservedly. In one of the many moments of reflection afforded to our narrator, Shanbhag expresses this in the most gorgeous, eloquent prose:

A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind. Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of traditional marriage—a complete stranger is suddenly mine. And then, I am hers, too; I must offer her my all. I want her to wield her power over me as an acknowledgment of my love. The rush of these feelings all at once is too much to describe. Language communicates in terms of what is already known; it chokes up when asked to deal with the entirely unprecedented. Similar feelings must have welled up in her, too. Her face was buried in my chest. Her arms tightened around me. I could feel the bangles on her arms pressing into my back. Through touch, through the giving, yielding closeness of our embrace, this unknown woman began to be known to me. I’ve often longed for a comparable experience, but there seems to be none. That sense of strangeness, surrender, dependence, compassion, entitlement, and a hundred other sentiments bundled together cannot possibly be relived. I held her tighter still, then relaxed. I raised her face and through her lips gained my first taste of her world.

I don’t want to spoil the novella, but suffice it to say that our narrator discovers that closeness and intimacy is not enough. At least not for his wife who, above anyone else in the book, understands that wealth is a means, not an end.

The near universal praise afforded to this novella by critics is deserved. Assuming its eligible – sometimes it can be difficult to tell with translated works – I’d be stunned if Ghachar Ghochar is not at least long-listed for the National Book Award and next year’s Man Booker International Prize.

Jul 19

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

While Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 could have done with a haircut – to the worth of 30,000 or so words – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s both enormously entertaining and has something to say.

Set in a partly flooded Manhattan, with flashbacks to the boroughs of New York, KSR tells a story of climate change and adaptability and resilience where the global market (capitalism) is the villain and the people take a stand against corporate greed. It’s told through the varied perspectives of 10 characters including a tough, female cop, two hackers, a rakish hedge fund manager, a grouchy citizen(s), the font of all knowledge, and two precocious and mostly homeless waifs who get up to all sorts of mischief. And it’s this variety of voice that is both the book’s great strength and it’s weakness. Because as the stories of each character begin to intertwine – whether coincidence or fate they mostly all reside in the same building – there’s a great deal of repetition. Also as the plot heats up, as certain characters grow in importance, the compulsion to keep telling the story from each perspective means that people like Amelia – a documentarian and YouTube star – are given greater exposure than what’s probably warranted by the plot. But all that aside, I appreciated the novel’s structure, how it brings out KSR’s playful, experimental side.

While KSR doesn’t flinch from the tragedy that will be wrought from the affects of climate change – his almost technical description of how flooding across the world comes about is fascinating and terrifying and sadly less a cautionary tale and more a probabilistic model of what’s going to happen – the novels overall tone of optimism is actually a breath fresh air in a market saturated with books where global warming has us living in caves and murdering each other for resources. If there’s a sour note, it’s that implicit in the novel’s philosophy is that true social and economic change can only happen after the shit hits the fan (although I’m sure KSR is hoping we come to our senses before then). Having said that it’s good to read a novel that wears its politics on its sleeves and actually proposes – whether practical, possible or not – an alternative to the status quo.

Yes New York 2140 didn’t need to be as long as it is, but it’s size shouldn’t get in the way of its importance, of the optimistic and political message it screams out to anyone who might be listening. The sort of novel that you hope transcends the echo chamber of like-minded people.

Jul 10

Swimmer Among The Stars by Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer Among The Stars by Kanishk Tharoor is a very strong and erudite collection of short fiction.

There’s a real sense of range and diversity to the stories that feature in the book. A piece recounting the final days of a city on the cusp of being razed to the ground by the khan’s armies is coupled with a lovely story about an elephant sent from India to Morocco to please a princess. There’s a very funny piece about that time the United Nations found itself in space and there’s a fascinating and exciting retelling of the Alexander Romance, apocryphal tales about Alexander The Great. It’s a collection that mixes a deep interest in language and history with science fiction and mythology. And just to top it all off the final story, which came close to being my favourite, uses the freezing in of a Russian icebreaker in the Antarctic to tell a story about collaboration and the sharing of cultures.

Highly recommended.

Jul 06

An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen

Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace is a marvelous book, the sort of marvelous book that deserves the type of in-depth analysis that I don’t have time to provide. It’s a toss-up between this novel and Jane Rawson’s From The Wreck as to which is my favourite book (so far) for the year. While I might struggle to pick between the two, what I do know is that Australian women are currently producing some top-flight science fiction.

The novel is a story-suite (quickly becoming my preferred form of narrative structure) with five novella sized pieces linked together by Liv, a woman with an interest in the limits of identity, sexuality, consciousness and sentience. When we first meet Liv we do so, literally, through the eyes of Caspar, a university lecturer who gets a thrill from seducing his female students. One day he receives a memory stick from Liv – a previous conquest – that, when hooked up with a virtual reality suit, allows Caspar to experience his seduction of Liv from her perspective. Caspar’s erotic memories of the short relationship, especially the joys of the chase, are tainted by Liv’s repulsion as she is drawn… coerced into fucking this obese older man – who happens to be him. For those of us who’ve read plenty of science fiction – or watched episodes of Black Mirror – there’s a familiarity to the shape of the plot, in the set-up and resolution. But that’s not the point. What becomes evident throughout the whole novel is how Kneen uses language to elicit a mix of repugnance and eroticism. Caspar can’t look away, even when he stops watching he inevitably goes back for more.

This push and pull – repulsion and attraction – is evident in the next story told from the perspective of a pedophile and Liv’s experiments with consciousness to possibly alleviate this man from his base desires. And it’s there in the following piece – my favourite in the book – about a synthetic boy, Cameron, designed by a team headed by Liv, to love men who love boys – to provide those men with a “safer” outlet. At one point in that story the boy meets a barely teenage girl in a playground, and in a secluded spot she pressures him to fuck her. As he’s fucking her… this fabricated sex toy for pedophiles… Cameron thinks:

Children are to be protected from their sensuality. Children are to be protected from sex. I remember the feel of her soft bottom bouncing up and down in my lap and I feel the blood rushing to my cheeks.

It’s a brilliant, powerful summation of the effect Kneen is striving for.

Sexuality and sexual perversion are not the only themes of the novel. As noted this is a book that’s fascinated in identity (especially gender) and sentience and the complexity of the human (and non human) mind. And it’s also a book that explores the nature of story-telling, a topic that particularly interests Liv as shown in the memory stick she sent to Caspar and her work with Cameron the synthetic boy and in the reconstruction of her own identity later in the book – though to say more would be a spoiler.

The point is that An Uncertain Grace is a layered and complex and beautifully written novel that never flinches from the difficult topics it tackles.

Jul 03

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When literary blogs and the book section of newspapers published their list of novels to look forward to in 2017, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot was listed frequently. Her previous book, The Possessed, a collection of Batuman’s pieces on the topic of Russian literature garnered a great deal of praise and while that was six years ago clearly Batuman left an indelible impression on literary critics. Hearing Batuman discuss The Idiot on the New York Times Book Review podcast – and read a small excerpt – had me all hyped up for the novel. And for a moment that hype was justified because The Idiot is a book with a super-strong first half, full of wit and sparkle. Sadly it also has a bloated, ponderous, yawn-inducing second half that makes you wonder where all the joy went.

The Idiot is set in 1995, which as Batuman notes in her afterword – and on the podcast – makes it a historical novel, especially when you consider the state of email and the internet in the mid 90s. Our protagonist, Selin, who has just set-up her first email account with AOL has arrived at Harvard for her freshman year. She signs up for a range of classes ranging from the conventional – learning Russian – to the niche – a class called Constructed World embodying a post modern mix of art and pop culture and meets a licorice all sorts of students, such as the intense Svetlana and the aloof, enigmatic and sexy (probably) Ivan. Selin’s adventure at Harvard makes up the first half of the book. Batuman, with a great deal of humour and charm, captures the chaos of University, the off-beat teachers, the strong friendships, the gradual formation of a personality – replete with opinions and attitude – independent of your parents. And if the novel had stopped at the end of Selin’s school year, I’d be singing its praises.

But following the end of that school year Selin heads off to the Hungarian countryside via Paris. She makes the journey, ostensibly, to spend more time with Ivan who is living with his family in Budapest. It’s at this point where the The Idiot takes a nosedive into the mundane and dull with the focus centering squarely on Selin’s relationship with Ivan. Throughout the novel there’s this feeling of unrequited (almost) love on Selin’s part as she tussles with Ivan’s frankly prickish attitude toward her – his fervent, lengthy emails (almost but not quite love letters) while he continues to date other women. It’s much the same in Hungary, except there’s more face to face and less emailing. Neither Ivan or Selin adequately communicate their intentions, which is fine, I appreciate that not all relationships work to a specific schedule, but when the novel is over 400 pages long and it’s hard to understand what Selin sees in Ivan in the first place – given he’s a moody pretentious bastard – by the time they make it to Hungary I was over it.

But it’s more than just Selin and Ivan. What was potentially interesting about this novel was providing a 21st perspective on the late 20th Century – a time that truly was more innocent (at least in retrospect). The joke is that when she started the novel in the early oughts it was a contemporary piece of fiction. Batuman, though, doesn’t take advantage of that slippage in time. I’m not sure if she reworked the first half – but that sense of history, of early conversations via email and a world that still feels large and disconnected, doesn’t come across in the novel. In fact the strength of the book, the fun Batuman pokes at the courses offered at Harvard and their eccentric professors, is universal. What’s also missing is a sense of identity. At times Selin’s background is highlighted – the daughter of Turkish immigrants – and there are parallels made between Hungarian and Turkish, but Selin’s cultural baggage, which drops in and out of the novel, is for the most part muted by her relationship with Ivan.

It’s all so disappointing because a book that promised so much before it was published, that seemed to be delivering at least for the first half, becomes flat and tired and a chore to finish by the end. I can speculate on whether Batuman should have published just the first half the book, or whether a novel that percolates in author’s head for over 15 years might become a case of diminishing returns. In the end though it all adds up the same – The Idiot didn’t work for me at all.

Jul 02

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Reading All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg could have been a painful process, the equivalent of having your teeth removed via your nostrils. The story of a woman in her late thirties, childless, unmarried and living in New York screams neuroses, therapist and the sort of wacky misadventures that would embarrass Candance Bushnell. And yet while All Grown Up does feature neuroses, therapists and the odd wacky misadventure it’s written with such honesty and compassion that spending time with our protagonist Andrea Bern in anything but a painful, cringe-worthy chore.

The secret to the novel is that it’s short – because who doesn’t love a petite book – and the narrative is split into a series of episodes that jump forward and backward through Andrea’s life. As the novel progresses, as each story is told, Andrea is pieced together, warts and all, as a wonderfully realised woman who has been through the ups and downs of living a single life. There’s the early years where Andrea believed she would be an artist, there are the middle years where she finds herself in a job she doesn’t particularly like, friends who don’t always seem to be on her wavelength and men with their wide variety of sexual hang-ups and fetishes and there’s the later years where Andrea is coming to terms with her upbringing, her relationship with her mother and brother, her acceptance of what it is to be single when the rest of the world expects marriage and children. Attenberg’s magnificent prose captures each of these stages – the hope, the love, the sadness, the neuroses, the maturity – with great deft and skill.

It’s a novel that can be horribly awkward and laugh out loud funny, such as the scene where Andrea flirts with an older man at a wedding only to have him reject her by talking sadly about his dead wife and then reproach Andrea for desiring to shag someone she’d only just met. There’s also a sharpness to the humour that’s provocative but also authentic in its delivery:

One more drink and we’re sharing our rape stories. Nearly every woman I know has one. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of these stories I could buy an enormous, plush pillow with which to smother my tear-stained face. Near rape, date rape, rape rape, it’s all the same, I think. Close enough is rape. Once I had a friend tell me this breathless, elaborate story about fighting off a drunk man at a party. He tears her dress, scratches her skin, throttles her throat, and it ends with her punching him in the eye, but, she points out repeatedly, he never actually fucks her. “Thank god nothing happened,” she said to me. I stared at her, and then slowly responded. “Yes,” I said. “Thank god for that.

While you can’t deny the book’s sometimes cynical tone, All Grown Up is not as raw or savage as it could have been. Instead there’s a warmth to the novel that emerges when Andrea is dealing with her mother and brother – especially later in the book – but is also present when she is enjoying time with her friends, such as this moment when her mate Indigo hands over baby Effy:

“Here,” [Indigo] says. “Hold Effy. He’s the best picker-upper I know.” I would rather have a glass of wine. But I hold Effy. And he is all the things you want a baby to be. He smells like sweet cream and his hair is petal-soft. All right, show me what you got, kid, I think; let’s see what you know. Indigo coos in the background, the fan shuddering behind her. I look into his eyes. She promised me wisdom. I do not see the wisdom of the ages. But, for a moment, in the tenderness of this baby’s existence, in his blank and gentle ease, I see the relief. You don’t know anything yet, I think. You don’t know a goddamn thing. You lucky baby.”

The poignancy of the scene, articulating a truism that age and experience often brings grief and hardship, but written with a bittersweet beauty that’s understated and powerful, is what makes All Grown Up such an unexpected delight to read.

Jun 29

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

I remarked on Twitter that while Ill Will by Dan Chaon is often gripping and has some fun with typography the novel did very little that was new for a psychological thriller. This feeling that the book was a tad conventional was the result of picking one of the key reveals toward the end of the novel. On reflection though I’ve come to the conclusion that while the plotting is perfectly fine the strength of Ill Will stems from the erudite things Chaon has to say about mental health, about repressed memories and about pattern recognition and how it can easily lead us to confuse fiction with fact.

I’m going to limit what I say about the plot. It’s not because of some massive twist, rather this is a book that gradually, patiently, methodically reveals its cards and to say too much would be to rob the reader of that sense of progression, which is tied intrinsically with the overall feeling of dread and suspense the story evokes. What I will say is that while Ill Will features a number of perspectives, this is very much the story of psychologist Dustin Tillman and how the horrible thing he witnessed as a boy – the brutal massacre of his parents, Aunt and Uncle by his adopted brother Rusty – shaped his life, marriage and career. Now based on a lack of DNA evidence Rusty has been cleared of these murders after spending more than twenty years in jail. At the same time one of Dustin’s patients approaches him with a long-standing case of unsolved murders, a string of drowning deaths involving drunk college boys.

Ill Will reminds us that something like “fake news” or better yet our capacity to believe in outright lies is not a new phenomena. I know as a kid, when I did something wrong, the gut instinct was to create a story – a cobbled together tissue of half-truths and bullshit – rather than face what I’d done. I still have that predilection today, not as bad as Dustin Tillman, but I could certainly appreciate his desire to believe in an alternate reality involving the deaths of his parents. Chaon ties that smartly into two popular crazes, the Satanic madness of the 1980s and the fallacy of repressed memory which, while dating back to the 19th Century, really hit its stride in the 80s and 90s, both which highlight that it doesn’t take much for humanity to incorrectly recognise a pattern and then overlay that on reality. Dustin’s story is therefore emblematic of a society that would rather be comforted by confirmation bias then seek the truth. The madness of our current age, of what’s happening now, Trumpism and the aforementioned fake news, is that it seems easier to believe in conspiracy theories than actually deal with the cold hard facts. It’s easier for Dustin to believe there is a serial killer murdering drunk college kids or accept that his adopted brother hacked up his parents than deal with the death of his wife or the tragic fact that his sons are drifting away from him.

I’d like to say that Dustin Tillman’s story is a cautionary tale, but I think we are well past that. In anycase, Dan Chaon has written a very clever novel that shines a light on our own insecurities, our desire to avoid pain, physical and psychological, by choosing fantasy over reality.

Jun 28

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou opens in the 1970s in an orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire a port city in the Republic of Congo. Our young protagonist with an incredibly long name but known as Moses (for short) is surprised when Papa Moupelo, a kindly ‘pocket-sized’ priest in elevator heels abruptly disappears. This absence coincides with regime change in the country as the Republic of Congo becomes the People’s Republic of Congo. The introduction of communism and the removal of those people who had an ounce of compassion compels Moses to escape the orphanage. On the streets of Pointe-Noire he joins a gang, helps out the Zairian prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter and attempts to evade the authorities out to clean the streets. Struggling to deal with the abuse of power he sees everyday he wears a green hood in honour of his hero Robin Hood. A clear sign of his principles and philosophy but also a possible sign that Moses might be going mad.

The strongest parts of the book have less to do with Moses and his misadventures and more to do with the Congo. In particular the ways communism becomes a handy crutch for those seeking influence and power and the deep-rooted mistrust and tensions between the varied ethnic groups of the Congo. Where the novel left me cold was in its depiction of Moses, especially post orphanage, and his descent into madness. The fact that Moses is narrating his story from within an insane asylum – which is located on the same grounds as the orphanage he escaped – should be a tragic, shattering revelation. And yet it felt on the nose, partly because there’s never much doubt that Moses has a slippery handle of reality. And while I felt some of the anger simmering under the surface, – especially in regard to the daily abuses Moses witnesses – and I noted the pitch-black tone of the humour – there are some funny moments in the orphanage, especially how Moses deals with a pair of bullies – so much of the short novel just slid off me. Which isn’t particularly insightful but as profound as this review is likely to get.

This is my first taste of Mabanckou’s work – who I note has written for over twenty years and is much respected and praised* – so I have no idea if it’s indicative of his wider oeuvre. My thoughts about this novel aside I’m still interested in reading further fiction by him and I suspect that Mabanckou’s 2003 novel African Psycho might be more up my alley.

*While I may not have loved the book I still thank Serpents Tail for translating Mabanckou’s work.

Jun 27

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

More than one reviewer has compared Katie Kitamura’s new novel, A Separation, with Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014). Both books feature female protagonists, newly divorced, who find themselves on holiday in Greece. They’re also tonally alike, sharply observed, intricately detailed and almost devoid of passion or warmth. And yet while I loved Outline, I was less impressed with A Separation. Putting aside whether the comparison is fair, the reason I like the Cusk more than the Kitamura is because of what separates – ha ha – the two novels.

While this isn’t a review of Outline – I’ve done that already – it’s worth noting that the strength of that book is that we, like the narrator, are observers. Cusk’s genius is that she’s written a novel where we learn more about the supporting characters than our protagonist. That’s not the case with A Separation. Our narrator may not be named but we learn plenty about her, specifically that she’s only just left her husband, Christopher, that their separation hasn’t been made public and that she still feels conflicted about him, which comes to the fore when she’s informed by her mother in law – who isn’t aware of their current marital status – that he’s gone missing in Greece. And it’s this critical difference between Outline and A Separation – the role of the narrator – that affected my feelings toward the two books.

Before I start on the negative I want to be clear that Kitamura’s prose is top drawer stuff. Reviews of the novel have focussed on her use of the comma splice – Lionel Shriver attacked it, Jonathan Gibbs defended it – but as John Self notes in his review of the novel, whatever your views of this stylistic quirk in Kitamura’s hand it produces sentences overflowing with unexpected detonations of astonishing prose. Take this example:

From across the table, I saw that he had buttoned his shirt up incorrectly, so that the fabric puckered in the middle of the shirt’s placket, an unusual slip in a man so fastidious about his appearance, it was an indication of how distraught he was, he could hardly have looked in the mirror before leaving his room.

Ignore the splice and focus on the rhythm of the sentence: puckered matched tonally with placket (a word I had to look up) followed by the multi-syllabic fastidious evoking the perfect image of a man in distress.

Beautiful prose, though, is not enough for me. As I note above this is a book that’s very much about the psychology of its protagonist. When the experience is this intimate you – the reader – need to have a relationship with the character. You don’t have to like her, or identify with her, or find resonance in her experience. But there has to be something. For me there was nothing. Here is a woman who has flown to Greece not to find her husband but to come to terms with the remnants of her marriage. A woman who seems to have wrapped her identity so tightly in the notion of marriage that she can’t bear to tell her mother in law that she and Christopher are no longer together. And yet I couldn’t muster any emotion about her state of mind or her situation. Part of that is the affectless prose that’s beautiful and serene when describing others but less successful when picking at the thoughts of the narrator. And part of it is that I never bought the relationship between the protagonist and her husband. From her own perspective – it’s all we ever get – her portrayal of Christopher is of a man who craves attention, more interested in his ‘research’ than his wife. A man who his mother confirms could never keep his dick in his pants. If there was ever any love or chemistry between the two of them it’s never made evident. And yet our narrator is incapable, physically, of telling anyone, other than her current boyfriend – bemused as to why the separation is being kept secret – that they are no longer together. It’s possible I’m missing some critical element, but for me it was hard to care, hard to engage, hard to understand our protagonist.

And that’s the big difference between this novel and Rachel Cusk’s Outline. We’re not meant to engage with Cusk’s narrator, she’s deliberately been kept in the shadows. In contrast I believe Kitamura wants us to have some appreciation of the tensions faced by her narrator. Sadly it never came together for me.

Jun 26

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’m willing to admit that I haven’t read nearly enough of George Saunders’ work other than a couple of short stories and fond memories of his novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. But with all the advance talk about his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I was more than willing to board the anticipation train. Early praise for the book, including a couple of fascinating interviews with Saunders only heightened my excitement.

You know where this is going. Contrary to the promises made by the back cover blurb I never found Lincoln In The Bardo captivating. It left me cold.

The subject matter, though, is not to blame. To open his novelist account Saunders settles on Abe Lincoln. Given the many biographies, movies, and fictional accounts, including that time he was a vampire hunter, a novel about the 16th President of the United States of America seems a conventional choice for someone famous for his askew take on the world. And yet there’s nothing straightforward in Saunder’s approach. For one, he makes the smart decision of limiting his focus to a single event in Lincoln’s life – the death of his son Willie. And rather than provide a fictional but historically factual account of the night Willie died and the controversy that came after – the Lincoln’s were holding a soirée as their son succumbed to fever – Saunders employs a Greek-chorus of ghosts and a collage of excerpts from non-fiction books detailing the tragedy to tell the story. It’s bold, ambitious and George Saunders through and through. And it might have worked if I hadn’t found the ghosts so fucking irritating.

Although numerous spectres get an opportunity to speak throughout the course of the narrative, most of the talking is limited to three ghosts – a Mr Vollman, Mr Bevins and the Reverend – who have come across the recently departed soul of Willie Lincoln. In their attempts to help Willie communicate with his father, who on the first night following his son’s death sits and grieves in the marble crypt where Willie is laid to rest, their constant wittering and general banality undercuts the significance of the moment. It’s meant to be funny, their circular logic, their bitching about the other ghosts, the fact that Vollman and Bevins can’t stand the Reverend, and yet rather than elicit a chuckle it becomes repetitive and tedious. The other ghosts that pop in and out of the story, other than the odd exception, fare no better. They are as teeth-gritting annoying as Vollman and Bevins. The only interesting aspect to Vollman and Bevin’s dialogue, other than their honest desire to help Willie, is their inability to grasp that they’re dead. This is aligned with the metaphysics of the ‘Bardo’, a Tibetan tradition similar to the Christian notion of limbo and the Jewish concept of Gehinom.

And yet this is still a book by George Saunders and while his ghosts – as characters – did bugger all for me there is still some scintillating writing on display. We discover that the Bardo does not discriminate, that it is a repository of souls for all genders and races. And while the white souls keep their distance from those ghosts of colour, the appearance of Willie attracts spirits from all across the Bardo. The point of view shifts from Bevin and Vollman (thank God) and instead we hear the painful thoughts of a slave Litzie Wright. I know it’s bad form to quote large chunks of a book, but I wouldn’t dare fiddle with or edit this astonishing piece of writing:

What was done to her was done to her many times, by many. What was done to her could not be resisted, was not resisted, sometimes was resisted, which resulted, sometimes, in her being sent away to some far worse place, other times in that resistance simply being forcibly overcome (by fist, knee, board-strike, etc.). What was done to her was done and done. Or just done once. What was done to her affected her not at all, affected her very much, drove her to the nervous shakes, drove her to hateful speech, drove her to leap off the Cedar Creek Bridge, drove her to this obstinate silence. What was done to her was done by big men, small men, boss men, men who happened to be passing the field in which she worked, the teen sons of the boss man or of the men who happened to be passing, a trio of men on a bender who spilled out of the house and, just before departing, saw her there chopping wood. What was done to her was done on a regular schedule, like some sort of sinister church-going; was done to her at random times; was never done at all, never once, but only constantly threatened: looming and sanctioned; what was done to her was straightforward missionary fucking; what was done to her was anal fucking (when the poor dear had never even heard of such a thing); what was done to her were small sick things (to the accompaniment of harsh words from stunted country men who would never have dreamed of doing such things to a woman of their own race), done to her as if no one else were there, only him, the man doing it, she nothing more than a (warm, silent) wax figure; what was done to her was: whatever anyone wished to do, and even if someone wished only slightly to do something to her, well, one could do it, it could be done, one did it, it was done, it was done and done.

I wanted to love Lincoln in the Bardo but we never saw eye to eye. And yet, for all my frustrations with the novel, there was always a nugget of brilliant prose that kept me going. I might have been reading a novel but I was regularly reminded that Saunders is a master of the short form.

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