Last week I found myself on a small stage but in big company with Alice Randall, Adam Ross, and Gary Shockley. We were talking about Lincoln in the Bardo, the Man-Booker-Prize-winning novel by George Saunders. (Thank God all I had to do was ask the questions.)
The novel imagines Lincoln on the night after his 11-year-old son’s death in February of 1862. Newspapers reported that Lincoln visited his son’s crypt alone in the dead of night, and this anecdote is Saunders’ starting point. He writes about Lincoln, his son, his wife, his grief, a nation at war – and a cemetery full of talking ghosts.
Two stylistic aspects of the book are particularly challenging. First, you’ve got the ghosts’ voices, often presented in the form of a script. You thought you were reading a novel but then find yourself in the middle of a play. Second, entire chapters take the form of snippets from historical sources. The sources might describe, for instance, Lincoln’s appearance, or different impressions of a party at the White House shortly before the child’s death. Here’s another wrinkle: some of the historical sources are real, while some are made up.
Lincoln in the Bardo elicited a wide variety of responses both positive and negative among readers – and among the panelists as well. All the panelists acknowledged the novel’s shocking creativity, but Alice was also horrified by Saunders’ vision of black women and of the white lower class. Adam noted that some great novels require a great deal of work from the reader. This novel clearly requires a great deal from the reader, but is it a great novel? He was noncommittal. Gary found this strange work brilliant, if jarring, likening it to “Mozart on a saw.”
My take? It’s one of the most fascinating, odd, powerful novels I’ve ever read. It seems to me that Saunders’ deepest message conveys the paramount importance and transformative power of empathy (though Alice’s comments have made me wonder if he has in some regards failed – certainly for her, and perhaps for others).
It succeeds for me – stunningly – as a ghost story – but I’m always inclined to like those.
I’m so happy for Gary Shockley to stop in at Bacon today to recommend another haunting work.
Robert Johnson recorded twenty-nine songs in two recording sessions, San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937. He then disappeared back into the life of an itinerant bluesman, leaving only those songs and two known photographs before succumbing to a jealous husband’s poisoned whiskey and a pauper’s unmarked grave. A generation later, when northeastern collectors began to hunt dusty 78 rpm “race records” across the South, the myth of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a midnight crossroads fired their imaginations. In his latest novel, White Tears, Hari Kunzru builds on those events to craft a meditation on obsession, race, appropriation, and class. In true Faulknerian fashion, the past isn’t dead in White Tears – and isn’t even really past.
Kunzru’s protagonist is Seth, a twenty-something graduate turned music producer with his best friend, Carter Wallace, the scion of a wealthy government contractor. Seth obsessively records the ambient noise of New York, convinced of Marconi’s theory that no sound ever completely fades but is always available to the ear sensitive enough to hear it. He captures a snatch of a blues song in Washington Square, which is then seized on by Carter, who values “authenticity” about all else. When Carter releases a version on the internet with the fictitious name of Charlie Shaw and an old 78 rpm Key & Gate record label attached, they attract the malign attention of a former collector known as JumpJim – and, it seems, of Charlie Shaw himself. When Carter is attacked and beaten into a coma at his own midnight crossroads, Seth is drawn into a vortex of paranoia and revenge, toggling between the present and several hallucinatory pasts.
Seth’s companion on these journeys is Leonie, Carter’s sister and Seth’s unrequitted love. Leonie is a struggling artist, but hardly a starving one. Buoyed by her family’s wealth and the patronage of her older lover, Leonie is accused by one colleague of being less an artist than a collector in waiting – a devastating indictment in the world of White Tears. Seth and Leonie go south to try to find Charlie Shaw and resolve the mystery of Carter’s attack and of the sinister forces that seem to be circling them both. In the heart of the novel, Kunzu alternates between the Seth-Leonie trip and a similar one taken decades earlier by JumpJim and his mentor, the record collector and junkie Chester Bly. Both trips end in ways that demonstrate the power of Charlie Shaw and the risks of the travellers’ obsessions.
While the Seth-Leonie plot line sometimes suffers from Seth’s passivity and Leonie’s entitlement, Seth is a rich source of ambiguity. Is he a paranoid schizophrenic, acting out elaborate fantasies in response to the voices in his head? Or is he the only one attuned to the echoes of the past and aware of their power over the present? Is he Carter’s last hope or Leonie’s worst nightmare? Is he acting out of love for Carter and the music, or is he driven to possess something that can never be his? Kunzru’s novel is open to all of these readings, and to many more.
Part psychological thriller, part paean to the shadowy wraiths of the old blues records, part meditation on the poisonous legacy of race and class, White Tears is a haunted song echoing long after the needle reaches the runout groove.
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Many thanks to Julie and Tommy Frist for hosting such a lovely evening to benefit the Nashville Public Library. Thanks also to event co-chairs Tracy Frazier, Elizabeth Hawkins, and Lucy Haynes.