Tag Archives: America

Lincoln in the Bardo

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 5.29.24 PM Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders (2017)
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

Whatever the former fellow (willie) had, must now be given back (is given back gladly) as it never was mine (never his) and therefore is not being taken away, not at all!
As I (who was of willie but is no longer (merely) of willie) return
To such beauty.
(p.301)

George Saunders is a master of the short story and of philosophical criticism. I will never be able to quite get over the poetry of his evaluation of Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” Read Here. The finesse with which he reads and interprets this classic story speaks of a writer with a nuanced understanding of life and the equivocal pursuit of happiness. These two themes are also common to his first published novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. In this book, Saunders plunges us into a reality of multifarious dimensions. Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son is dead, and yet he is also not dead, nor is he undead. He is trapped in the Bardo.

Just as these multiple states of being appear to be inconsistent with one another, so does the evolution of our understanding of identity and existence which moves through the pages of this strange and evocative book. There is a moment when the residents of the Bardo merge into the essence of President Lincoln. He is at once fundamentally altered, and yet simultaneously comprised of a conglomeration of alternate beings and identities. The ontological consequences of this scene are mind-bending.

There also other moments which elucidate the tenuous nature of our understanding of identity. For example, the need for the characters to append themselves to the thoughts or statements which they decry in order to retain their individuality, is compromised by the fact that each of their statements are moulded strategically by Saunders to add to the plot and progress of the story on a literary level. Thus breaking what appear to be characters into mere pieces of thoughts and memories, devoid of the independent essence of what would have once made them human. In the end, Saunders illustrates that our life is never our own because what we are is not reducible to one life. We all live numerous existences and identities in the space of an instant, and as in the words of Shakespeare;

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.   

It is a rare book which chooses not to capture the impossible complexity contained in an instant, and instead works to convey the weighty significance behind the consequences of such a truth.   

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Tar Baby

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 8.41.28 PMTar Baby
Toni Morrison (1981)
Picador, Pan Books Ltd (1991)

I would like to write about the role which nature plays in Tar Baby. Initially, the book seems to be focused on the particular inter-relations between individuals, but as the opening suggests, this is a story about the various universes which coexist outside the levels of our perception. Many of which never touch, nor know about one another’s existence. This operates clearly on the human level, Valerian is orbiting in another existence entirely to his wife and that of the historical past of their son. Similarly, Jadine and Son begin and end their shared history on different wavelengths. These separate revolutions eclipse one another for a short moment (not even a year), only to be thrust back into their respective orbits and realities.

More interesting for myself perhaps, is the kingdom positioned at the natural level. From an anthropomorphic perspective, we could suggest that phrases like “water-lady” (p.3) or “teenage avocado” (p.135) suggest an agency to nature which is operating on a human level, almost as an imitation of human forms and definitions. However, as the book progresses, a different image of the natural world emerges, one which is epistemologically incredibly difficult to fathom given the locked-in nature of human perception. Even so, I would like to suggest that Morrison does at times touch at an understanding of one layer of nature which is external to the human experience. One way to access this layer of symbolism is through the image of the house. In the description of Son’s nocturnal wanderings we see the possibility of parallel universes which co-exist, but never meet:

“He spent some part of every night with her and grew to know the house well, for he sneaked out just before dawn when the kitchen came alive. And he had to admit now, standing in the sunlight, that he had liked living in the house that way. It became his, sort of. A nighttime possession complete with a beautiful sleeping woman. (p.138-139)

Interestingly, Son’s adventures are only nocturnal to the protagonists which command the story, individuals like Valerian and even Jade. They are not nocturnal for Son, for his cycle of rest is at direct odds with the other inhabitants of the house. So once we grasp this symbol of the house, we can see that nature also exists within the story on the level of an alternate universe. If we look back to Son’s initial vision of the house, we see him there, one hand on the tree, eyes looking at the “cool and civilised” (p.134) house, and more than ever the world of nature emerges in sharp contrast to the the world of humans and practical industry. I think this is the only moment in the book when the gulf between one very specific layer of nature, the nature experienced through the sensations of a man on the run who exists on the fringes of human worlds, and the layer of civilised existence, merge. Civilised in the colonial sense, where a mother can abuse her own child due to the perversity of the socialised environment to which she has been brought. It is at this instance, before Son begins to float among the fringes of the world of the house, that nature and human species are rejoined.

Importantly, this coming together of worlds is only possible through the perspective of what one would call an ‘uncivilised man’ in the social lexicon of prison based society. From this lense, Son is a man who has lived on the borders of society, an escaped convict, a criminal and a deserter of his way of existence. And it is through his eyes that the house is incredibly ugly, and of course Son knows this too:

“They are drinking clear water in there, he thought, with ice cubes in it. He should have stayed on the boat for the night.” (p.134)

When viewed through this perspective, the ending is simply Son’s return to a state of being,  which is not to be classified as ‘nature’ for how can we understand that which he has become from without? Again, this would be an endeavour in anthropomorphism. Instead all we can do is watch from afar, in the same way as Son initially viewed the house, and only touch at the universe within.

“By and by he walked steadier, now steadier. The mist lifted and the trees stepped back a bit as if to make the way easier for a certain kind of man.” (p.309)

Americanah

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 9.23.55 PMAmericanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2013)
4th Estate, Great Britain (2017)

“She felt his words like a melody and she felt herself breathing unevenly, gulping at the air. She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in her chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hand in his, both clasped on the table, and between them silence grew, an ancient silence that they both knew. She was inside this silence and she was safe.” (439)

It felt like the whole book was leading to this moment, in Chapter 52, when Obnize and Ifemelu are to be together once again. They have both travelled so far, both in distance and in spirit, only to be reunited for this chapter. In what Adiche dexterously describes in the matter of a few moments, they are able to travel together through all of the layers of one another’s lives which they have missed. Within seconds of their second conversation, held now in Ifemelu’s lounge room, Obnize brings their relationship out of shared or separate memories into the present, into the very nowness of their bond, “I spent the morning reading The Small Redemptions of Lagos. Scouring it, actually,” he said.” (435) Next they tumble through the painful loss of his mother and the disatisfaction of his marriage, all amongst the backdrop of a discussion of architecture, obligations tied to identity, and the courting rituals of the peacocks upon the roof of a neighbouring building. Finally, the painful truth of Ifem’s sexual assault is unwoven and laid bare through the power of speech, only to be taken up gently into a new fold of intimacy on which their bond is founded. Each of the parts of “Americanah” structurally echo the distance between Obnize and Ifemelu, from from the moment they part, till Part 7, in which Chapter 52 is situated, they never figure in the same section. Almost as an alignment of the fabric of their existence, their parts are able to come together once again. Fittingly then, does the chapter commence with an image suitable to this collision of worlds, “There was a moment, a caving of the blue sky”. (427) Although not the technical conclusion to the book, Chapter 52 makes up the end of Ifemelu and Obnize’s long voyage back home.

Junky

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-9-01-11-pmJunky
William S. Burroughs
Penguin Books, 2009 (1953)

Junky as a title is misleading, for this is not the story of a man, a junky; but rather the story of Junk.

It is no surprise that I approached this book with the idea of an autobiography in the style of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. Junky‘s reputation certainly precedes it and having the advantage of over 60 years of fascinated readers, along with its place as a Penguin favourite, meant that I had heard more than a few opinions on its content.

However, Burroughs himself has no intention of fooling us, and makes sure to teach us right from the outset that:

Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life. (xxviii)

What is to come is no raucous trip through the ungrowth of a deep and mesmerizing world of addiction and inhibition, rather it’s the simple but solid fact that junk takes no prisoners. There is no one behind the junky and there is no story about the life behind the junk. All that we see is the stark image of the opiate: how it consumes, empties and retains the user.

None of what Bill does throughout the book has any meaning, nor does it give us any clues as to what motivates his story. The void is filled only by the Junk and its overwhelming power of effacement. Supposedly Bill has a wife and numerous sexual exploits occur, but these are all peripheral, they only exist by virtue of their coming into contact with Junk.

There is one point, towards the end, at which another spectre is given the chance to emerge. Given no name and defined as ‘neither a user nor a seller’, this is something worse than the junky and calls for one of the most descriptive and graphic portrayals in the book:

So this man walks around in the place where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed. His eyes are black with an insect’s unseeing calm. He looks as if he nourished himself on honey and Levantine syrups that he sucks up through a sort of proboscis. 

What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body – a substance to prolong life – of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialised as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. (112)

What we see here is the description of a being no longer useful as seen through the lens Junk. The Junk has now assumed the role of narrator and tells of a horrible creature now devoid of any value through an absence of usefulness. It doesn’t crave the drug nor even try to control it in the way the Law might, it is a parasite of the ultimate order and now abhorred.

In comparison the junky is painted as a pleasing and degenerative soul for whom a passion for Junk is justifiable and even encouraged. In many ways the junky is simply another form of organic matter waiting to be consumed:

We are turning into plants. (147)

At first difficult to understand and even frustrating, Junky soon shows itself as but another rhythm of life, ebbing onwards at a slow and dull beat.