Lincoln in the Bardo

“Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now we must lose them.”

In honor of the Man Booker Prize winner being announced yesterday, and also because I am seriously lagging on my reading list so I can’t write about the winner since I haven’t read it yet, I decided to write about last year’s winner.

Last year, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo took the grand prize as the Man Booker Book of the Year.  Although it’s been sitting on my shelf since it won last October, I just managed to finish it yesterday – right on time to order the 2018 winner, Anna Burn’s The Milkman.  I am glad that I was so late in reading Lincoln in the Bardo, however, because October was the perfect month to read it:  the novel takes place over the length of one long, solitary night in a graveyard.

Solitary because the novel’s focus is on a single living character, Abraham Lincoln, and his lonely midnight sojourn to his young son’s grave.  Lincoln’s internal dialogue bombards the reader with tangible, raw waves of emotions.  Emotions that are vivid and familiar because they are emotions that we all have suffered: loss, grief, hopelessness, anger, regret…

Amplifying the palpable sense of loss is Saunders’ brilliant juxtaposition of Lincoln’s solitary grieving with a cacophony of voices: both historical and fictional, but all long dead.  Like us, these bodiless voices have experienced the emotions manifesting in Lincoln, and like us, they can act only as mere bystanders to his grief.  Both we and the voices are confined by time and space to the memory of our own losses and grief.

As the story matures, however, the reader – and the voices – come to realize that despite our seemingly individualized experiences, everyone must come to terms with death and accept that those who we love will eventually die.  And it is through this collective realization – and the realization that it is the love that makes life worth it, even with the eventual loss – that the voices in our book are able to find release and move on.

 

Without a Sense of an Ending

The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails.  What rails.  The life is the rails.  It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.  It cuts its own path.  My path took me here.

Okay – I will admit it.  I have been a mess the past month with way too much to do, so I utterly failed my goal of trying to read all of the books that were long-listed for the Man Booker Prize before the Short List came out, i.e. before today.

In my younger years – meaning up until now, but I am actively trying to change – I beat myself up about not reaching the goals that I set for myself.  But I’ve started (and before those of you who know me as a crazy type A person write me off, I said started) to realize, that I am human, and it is okay to fail at your goals sometimes.  In fact, goals should be aspirational so that in reaching for them, you accomplish more than what you otherwise would have had done.

What I mean to say, after all that rambling self-reflection, I have decided that instead of thinking that I failed by having a million other things to do that got in the way of my reading list, I’ve decided to be grateful for what I did accomplish – reading two great pieces of literature that I would not have otherwise gotten to had I not tried to read the entire Long List.

AND, I did manage to read one that made the Short List, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room.  The Mars Room follows a young woman as she makes her way through the criminal justice system, and chronicles her attempt to come to terms with serving two life sentences.  The book was thought-provoking, especially with regards to the American justice system and the so-called “American Dream.”  The story itself, however, was not my cup of tea.

Admittedly, The Mars Room is not the type of book that I would have gone for myself – which is one reason I like reading books that have been nominated for prizes; it gets me out of my comfort zone – but as it is not my favorite type of novel, you do need to take my thoughts on it with a grain of salt.

In the novel, you come face-to-face with the vulgarities of life; strippers, drug dealers, murderers are all featured in the novel. And Words are not minced. Instead, the book breaks through our quixotic illusions of what we think the world is and should be and shows us the realities of a life that has become far too familiar to too many.  The result leaves the reader in a space where he or she must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Facing reality is usually an uncomfortable business.

In fact, just as the reader is finding him or herself less guarded, opening up to the “family like” network that the characters have created for themselves, google and its vast knowledge of the world upends the unspoken agreement between the author and the reader that the main characters in this story are the protagonists – the wrongly incarcerated who are at the complete – and unfair – mercy of the criminal justice system.  Google tells the story of their crimes.  And some of their crimes are heinous.

It was this moment that I realized why this book had been long listed (and subsequently short listed).  It is Rachel Kushner’s ability to create a story full of multi-dimensional characters that are neither good nor bad, but fully human that sets her apart. Her novel is an ode to reality.  A reality that desperately needs to be acknowledged and has for so long gone unnoticed.

I will say, however, that if you do like your novels to end all wrapped up in a tight bow, you will definitely feel unsatisfied at the end of this book.  It leaves you, to borrow a phrase from Julian Barnes, but one that is especially apt here,  without the “sense of an ending.”