Tag Archives: War

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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Slaughterhouse-Five

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-8-01-55-pmKurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Vintage, London 2000

I thought Slaughterhouse-Five was a completely different book. I imagined that it would be a coming of age tale in a time of war, centered around five young lives and their discovery of a run-down slaughterhouse somewhere in Middle America. I imagined a scene where a dominant child takes to the emotional and even physical torture of another, whilst the others standby as onlookers. I imagined an allegory of war and of the wild and inhumane acts that people perform upon one another.

In many ways this picture is not wrong, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is not so different from my own. It is the story of horror and dread and inexplicable madness. It is also ominous for the greater part of the novel, a quality I saw inherent to my own fantasised version. However, it also tells of the circularity of life and the ever existing movement of life and death. I did not imagine my children of the slaughterhouse to engage so profoundly with the nonexistence of life in a universe where no one really dies: and so on… ad infinitum.

Billy’s idiot-savant approach to life recalls that of Dostoyevski’s Myshkin, and causes the story to unfurl in a manner similar to his unending stream of flashbacks and episodes of time and space travel. There is really no beginning to this story which starts by letting us know exactly how it will end, so that the ending never actually happens. It is as though with each step forward we take two steps back, further into the depths of Billy’s plundered mind.

I don’t know where I got the notion of another entirely different Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps it was from a cover I had once seen, on which five small children could be seen dancing infront of a red barn. Often with a book of such renown and popularity, the contents are often obscured and influenced prior to any reading. This was certainly the case for myself, I couldn’t help but think of Billy as any one of my invented slaughterhouse children, at once tormentor and tormented. In such a way, it is certainly a book to add to The Brief History of Books that do not Exist