In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.
We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.
Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.
But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.
Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.
However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?
We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”
At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.
I’ve just published a poem, “Transient,” in Poetry Quarterly (issue #30, Summer 2017, running a bit behind schedule). Because the magazine is behind a paywall, you would need to purchase a rather expensive printed copy or else subscribe to the online version to read it. That being the case, and because the poem is about empathy, a quality sorely needed today, I’ll reproduce it here.
A damaged person on the floor,
filthy, scuffed, like the station itself.
Above the person hulks a cop, hand
on holster. The cop smirks and says, get up.
Get up scumbag and move the hell out.
His victim tries to stand but slumps back down,
a person in transit who needs to rest awhile.
No vagrants in the terminal
the cop says. Port Authority badge.
I remember this the only way I can,
hazily, since I
was drinking myself.
All this many years ago, when
the city’s days were dim and grim.
What was wrong with that person?
Couldn’t he/she rise?
Has karma messed that cop up by now?
I walk over and see the dull badge
has no name, only a number. Meanwhile,
the individual moans.
We need some help here, I say.
Some help my ass the cop says.
He kicks the prone figure once, then leaves.
I bend down to check:
that numb stare could yet be anyone’s.
Society’s conception of sin continues to evolve over time. Religious instruction we may have received as children might not match up with our conception of what’s thought sinful today. In addition, the categories of sin have expanded to include the institutional and the national, among others, in addition to the personal. And sin’s contextual setting is generally secular.
Despite this fluidity, two recent novels tackle subjects that qualify as sinful from almost anyone’s vantage point. The multiple-award-winning (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tackles America’s original sins of slavery and genocide (violence and theft perpetrated against Native Americans appears as a thread throughout the book). This year’s buzz-generating novel, My Absolute Darling by debut author Gabriel Tallent, is focused on the personal: child sexual abuse and incest. The two novels are quite different but both are intensely gripping reads.
Let’s begin with The Underground Railroad. Whitehead has done a number of extraordinary things with this book. First, he has done a phenomenal job of describing the experience of slavery and the pervasive, lasting damage it caused. The novel’s primary heroine, Cora, is completely believable in her fluctuating fear and courage, hesitation and anger. Cora is pinpointed within her biological (her grandmother Ajarry and her mother Mabel are nicely delineated) and geographical (Cora starts her journey on a vicious plantation in Georgia and travels the railroad from there) settings, so she seems very tangible and real, as do her antagonists. One of these, the “slave catcher” Ridgeway, reminds me of of the judge in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian in his flamboyantly malevolent behavior and philosophizing. Among its other sterling qualities, The Underground Railroad is a real page-turner. It’s a hell of a story.
The story is even richer for its ingenious sci-fi twist: the underground railroad is a literal railroad, complete with tracks and actual trains traveling unseen through hidden tunnels laboriously carved out beneath the earth. The stations are hidden under the homes and barns of abolitionist sympathizers deep in the South. This literal railroad is handled with subtlety and actually seems quite believable in context. Its operators run enormous risks, and some of them pay dearly. The Underground Railroad presents a unique and unforgettable view of the horrors of slavery, and its lessons pack unfortunate relevance in today’s America. The fact that the novel is also a fabulous read only adds to its achievement.
The case for My Absolute Darling is not quite so convincing. It too is a stunning read, but in an entirely different and more claustrophobic way. It was published quite recently and hasn’t garnered any awards yet, but it has received extraordinarily extravagant, not to say hyperbolic, praise. Stephen King has already hailed the book as a “masterpiece”; this strikes me as a bit premature.
The core of the book concerns the struggles of 14-year-old “Turtle” Alveston to survive the depredations, sexual and otherwise, of her charismatic but dangerously out of control father, Martin. The Alvestons (Martin’s wife has already died under sketchy circumstances) live alone, in a remote setting nearly off the grid outside Mendocino. Martin is a survivalist as well, and browbeats his daughter on a regular basis to master the necessary skills. Between that and the incest, it’s small wonder that Turtle struggles in every way at school and is a conspicuous outcast.
It has to be acknowledged that the book is exceptionally well-written. Tallent’s mother Elizabeth (one of his two mothers; he was raised by lesbians) is a well-regarded writer in her own right, having published stories and essays in The New Yorker and many other publications. So writing runs in the family. And Gabriel was brought up in the area where the book is set, which contributes to its sense of authenticity. His writing on Northern California flora, and the distinctions to be drawn between various firearms, is incredibly detailed and adds another layer of verisimilitude. Furthermore, Tallent’s depiction of Jacob, a high school boy who starts to draw Turtle out and eventually draw her toward the outside world, is marvelously done. Jacob’s sophisticated banter and essential innocence ring completely true.
Yet there is an ugliness in the book that revolves around its subject matter. Tallent has stated, in interview after interview, that he wanted to handle the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her father gingerly without any hint of exploitation. He probably does this as well as it can be done but the subject stands regardless and continues to radiate its own unhealthy attraction for the reader.
I want to give Gabriel Tallent the benefit of the doubt, simply because this book is so well written. But the book’s denouement gives me pause: it is written in such a sweeping cinematic style that it is as though the writer were simply transcribing the scene from the film that is sure to come. My Absolute Darling is going to transform Gabriel Tallent’s life and make him famous (well, as famous as a writer can be these days) and wealthy. Did he set out to achieve this? You might reply that the book is so masterfully done it doesn’t really matter. But if Tallent chose to depict Turtle’s sufferings simply to draw readers in, wouldn’t that be a kind of sin in itself?
One of my first posts on this site was in praise of Ulysses, the very stylish and capable writers’ text editor I used to write my 50,000-word novella during last fall’s NaNoWriMo. I continue to admire and enjoy this software but I’m about to stop using it. The reason? Ulysses is switching to a subscription-only model.
I oppose such a model on philosophical grounds, which I’ll try to outline below. I also think this switch will prove to be a failing business model for Ulysses, unless there are more dilettante/hobbyist writers out there than anyone previously realized. In fact I hope this model does fail, and Ulysses returns to the standard software practice of buy once, then pay for occasional significant updates.
Adobe was the conspicuous pioneer in subscription software and the model has apparently worked for them. The big difference here, though, is that Adobe is the industry standard for designers everywhere. (Since I’m not a designer, I promptly stopped using Photoshop and other Adobe products and was able to replace the functionality I needed with no difficulty.) The equivalent standard for writers, at least where submission for publication is concerned, is Microsoft Word. And Word still offers the ability to purchase the software, instead of subscribing to it. There is no standard software for the process of writing. If there were to be such software, Scrivener would probably be the most likely candidate.
Ulysses actually suits the way I write better than Scrivener does, but so do many of its rivals, some of which also offer cross-platform capability (Ulysses is Apple only). And Scrivener itself can be a marvelous writing tool when pared down to its composition mode. The program is not as “pretty” as Ulysses but it does far more. Scrivener is essential for its excellent templates and for its comprehensive export capabilities. You can use it to write fluidly, reorganize and revise in fine detail, and then prepare a flawless manuscript for submission. No other software, including Ulysses, can do all of that nearly so well.
iA Writer, Sublime Text (properly configured) and the up-and-coming Write! all provide attractive, customizable writing environments with a left-hand sidebar for project navigation and organization (Write! just recently introduced a local sidebar and is already working to improve it). Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. Any of these programs can substitute for Ulysses during the first draft process, with Scrivener coming into play after the first draft is complete. (The software I’m using to write this post, Byword, would also qualify if it would just add a navigational sidebar.) What’s more, all of these programs employ traditional files and folders to organize your work. Ulysses, in contrast, hides your work deep in a largely inaccessible database, though you can deliberately create external files and folders if you wish. Some people think this system provides advantages; I don’t.
Here are a few reasons why a I think a subscription model for Ulysses is a really bad idea:
The cost for the end user becomes disproportionate. Let’s say you paid $45 to purchase Ulysses. Suddenly, you’re asked to pay $40 per year to continue using it. (Granted, existing users pay “only” $30 per year.) Now, this isn’t cost-prohibitive per se. Ulysses is excellent software and many people would argue it’s worth the added cost. But suppose you also buy Scrivener for $45 and then pay for two upgrades at $30 each over a 10-year period. That’s $105 over 10 years for what is arguably the one truly indispensable writers’ program, vs $300-$400 for Ulysses. Ulysses is not worth that cost differential; I think its developers are being a bit greedy here.
Suppose every bit of software you use regularly suddenly demanded that you subscribe in order to continue using it. Apart from the significant added cost, it would drive you crazy to keep track of all the required payments. The historical purchase-once, pay-to-upgrade model for software makes far more sense.
Ulysses is writing software. Its developers argue they need the extra subscription money in order to deliver “continuous improvements”. Writing software does not need continuous improvements—indeed, constant change for the sake of some supposed “improvement” would actually be detrimental. Once a writing program offers a flexible and pleasing interface, basic editing features and word count and the ability to navigate and modify project file structures, anything beyond is extraneous at best. I don’t use many of the extra features Ulysses already offers.
So, unless or until Ulysses comes to its senses, I’ll be using iA Writer and Sublime Text, among other programs, for short fiction and poetry and Scrivener for long-form work and revisions.
In the Guardianrecently, fantasy author “Robin Hobb” (real name Margaret Ogden) is quoted as saying, “Fantasy has become something you don’t have to be embarrassed about.”
I strongly disagree—I think readers and writers of fantasy alike should be highly embarrassed, and that includes writers as popular as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin and as feckless as Lidia Yuknavitch, whose very poorly written The Book of Joan is briefly reviewed below.
Fantasy fans should be embarrassed because what they do has no bearing on reality, be it the reality described by astrophysics or the inner life of the mind. There is only the sketchiest, most tangential connection to real world concerns and problems. Fantasy enthusiasts are estranged from these concerns and problems, or hiding from them. They are children playing games of make-believe. They are fleeing adult responsibilities, including the responsibility to strive to make some sort of sense of the world.
I realize there are people who enjoy the genre, and these folks will obviously disagree quite strongly with what I’m asserting here. But consider: we as human beings have not yet gained the abilities to fully understand the universe we inhabit. Why waste time creating imaginary worlds that invariably pale in comparison to the mysteries of our own? It strikes me as an abdication of sorts, like a child turning his back on other children and retreating to a corner to play by himself.
I suspect deep psychic pain may make fantasy attractive for some people, as the genre offers a way to escape from the known world without the extreme of actually, physically quitting it. This is likely so in Yuknavitch’s case; the author apparently had a deeply traumatic childhood and the world limned in The Book of Joan features supernaturally strong women as a probable consequence. I can understand and respect this. But I can’t respect the way it’s done.
The following critique relates to The Book of Joan and extends to fantasy in general.
It’s intellectually lazy. Read this description of the scenario Yuknavitch sets up: “CIEL was built from redesigned remnants from old space stations and science extensions of former astro and military industrial complexes. We who live here number in the thousands, from what used to be hundreds of countries. Every single one of us was a member of a former ruling class. Earth’s the dying clod beneath us. We siphon and drain resources through invisible technological umbilical cords. Skylines. That almost sounds lyrical.” CIEL and skylines are key to the core plot of the book, yet we are supposed to take them on faith. Redesigned remnants and invisible technological umbilical cords. OK, got it.
It’s badly written. A sample: “‘Okay! You have my attention,’ I yell. The walls echo back at me. ‘What the fuck was that?’ My voice merely ricochets around. I walk closer to the wall. I put my hands against it; solid matter. ‘Nyx?’ Nothing. Just the vanishing points in the cave where light gives way to shadow.
Then it’s Nyx’s voice: ‘Please take care to move slowly; you are not exactly among the living.’
What the fuck does that mean? Not exactly among the living?”
It’s pointless. Various attempts have been made to link this … novel of a reimagined Joan of Arc to today’s controversies and dangers. All of these attempts are nonsense. The book has no bearing on today whatsoever. It’s pure escapism, for those who can buy into its lazy premises and tolerate its clumsy narrative and preposterous (yet clichéd) plot.
I really don’t mean to single out The Book of Joan for special abuse; for all I know, it may be one of the better recent fantasy novels. I think HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has all of the flaws found in Yuknavitch’s novel and then some. It’s every bit as irrelevant and yet it is wildly popular. In a similar vein, Donald Trump is completely unqualified for any sort of leadership role and yet he is President.
There are other, better ways to stretch your fictional boundaries, if that’s what you feel impelled to do. Science fiction? For sure. Speculative fiction? Absolutely. But fantasy? Sorry, no.
When I worked as a web developer, Sublime Text came out of nowhere (Australia, actually) to become enormously popular. I understand it remains popular still, though I believe the newer program Atom has also gained a lot of adherents. One of the best things about Sublime Text, though, in addition to its name, is its flexibility—flexibility that extends to making the program a suitable environment for writers.
For years, I’ve heard stories about writers adopting Sublime Text in place of some other software. Indeed, the Sublime Text site now bills the program as “a sophisticated text editor for code, markup and prose.” Having used Sublime Text as a developer, I decided to give it a go as a writer. It works remarkably well. For shorter forms of writing, especially poetry, it is superb.
The “minimap” feature (which the recently reviewed Write! app also uses) is very helpful in longer narratives, as it lets you visualize where a current line fits into the larger story. Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. For my money, though (speaking of which, Sublime Text retails for $70—this gives you a license to use the software on all your computers, regardless of whether they’re running Windows, macOS or Linux), the program’s real killer feature is its exceptionally configurable layout.
I like to compare multiple versions of my work as I move toward a final draft, and Sublime Text’s vertical columns feature (you can have as many as four columns) lets me view multiple versions side-by-side. This is especially useful for poetry, since it provides a direct line-by-line comparison.
Sublime Text’s programming heritage remains evident in some ways, but writers should not feel unduly intimidated by this. For example, you need to configure preferences via individual files, and you also need to add a few plugins to make Sublime Text a solid environment for writing.
You can install the necessary plugins via the program’s Package Control feature. Only four are really needed: Markdown Editing, Pandoc (which lets you export your Sublime Text work to Microsoft Word), Side Bar (a better replacement for the default sidebar) and Word Count.
If setting up Sublime Text seems a bit too hands-on, then there are plenty of other solid writing apps out there, including the aforementioned Write! But if you like the idea of customizing your writing environment, and the capability of directly comparing multiple versions of your work appeals to you, you’ll find Sublime Text very satisfying. You may even find it sublime.
I recently published a poem in Antiphon, the estimable UK online poetry magazine. Although the poem’s title is “High,” the heading of this post refers to the magazine as a whole—it is simply excellent, and serves as a wonderful antidote to today’s bleak morning headlines.
Antiphon is edited by Rosemary Badcoe (who is also the magazine’s designer) and Noel Williams, and it is an obvious labor of love. Each issue (which the magazine’s website notes is archived by the British Library) features a wide range of poetry, with careful attention paid to sound, rhythm and image. The magazine is friendly towards metrical and non-metrical work, and its editors have very good ears. Some of the standout poems in this new issue (no. 21) include “The Weather We Call Raw” and “Sylvia’s Games” by David Troupes, “A catch-all” by Patrick Theron Erickson, “A Bag of Frozen Kidney Beans” by Burgi Zenhaeusern, “C282Y” by Susan L Leary and “Afterwards” by Anthony Watts. There are a number of other very good poems as well. The tone nods toward the traditional but standards are quite high (no pun intended). You won’t find any Michael Robbins poems here. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Robbins; he simply operates with a different set of criteria in mind.
Ms. Badcoe says, in her prologue to this issue, that she disagrees with the idea that all poetry is political. I concur—politics tends to coarsen language and ideas, and never more so than today. I’ve spent far too much time recently thinking and writing about political issues. It is enormously liberating to take another path and come at the world and its meanings from a different angle.
Again, Rosemary Badcoe: “Poetry is subtle, and takes the long view, the intensely focused close view, the light-bent-around-a-corner view. It uses precise, carefully observed language and appreciates nuance and differences and similarities. There are better ways to protest than to write a poem, I’d contend, but writing a poem is one way of expressing the complexity of a world that others would try to reduce to sound-bites.”
I’m delighted to be published in Antiphon. I’ll reproduce “High” here eventually but I’d like to give the magazine exclusivity until their next issue appears. In the meantime, the Antiphonblog features audio recordings of many of the poems in this issue, including mine.
Update, 8/5/19: the post below is the work of an early enthusiast. I can no longer recommend the Writers Studio for anyone but rank beginners, and even for those just starting out I suspect there are better options. There is no quality control—anyone who pays is admitted, so student abilities vary enormously. Instruction can be uneven, and the Studio’s basic formula of weekly two-page exercises quickly grows tedious.
The Writers Studio, which I’ve covered previously on this site, celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend. To mark the occasion, there was a sold-out, standing-room-only reading at the Strand Bookstore in NYC last night, followed by a party for faculty, students and guests at a private apartment overlooking Union Square. There was even a 30th anniversary cake.
Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who founded The Writers Studio, kicked off the evening’s remarks at the Strand. He seemed very pleased by the Studio’s durability and growth, if somewhat astonished by how quickly three decades have gone by. Schultz was followed by a parade of writers associated with what the New York Times has called “the most personal of the [writing] programs.” Perhaps my favorite piece of the evening was by Therese Eiben, the Studio’s Hudson Valley Director. This was a funny and frightening take on the perils of flying today, and all too evocative.
In addition to the reading and the party, The Writers Studio has commemorated the occasion with the publication of The Writers Studio at 30 (“Fiction and Poetry from the First 30 Years of the Landmark School of Creative Writing and Thinking”). The paperbound volume is 500 pages and contains a wide range of work from writers associated with the Studio, including the Studio’s advisory board and friends, teachers and students. Starting today, you should be able to order a copy directly from the publisher.
Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information.
Update, 8/17/17: Write! has now added a local navigation panel and is actively working on expanding its functionality. This is a big step forward for the program’s productivity.
Sometimes I wonder which category has grown fastest: the number of people aspiring to write in one form or another, the number of MFA or independent writing programs designed to serve them, or the number of writing applications created to address their every need—particularly their need to focus.
Ever since WriteRoom began the focused writing craze many years ago, its imitators and progeny have expanded exponentially. From direct copies like JDarkRoom and PyRoom to Markdown-enabled programs like Byword and iA Writer to full-scale writing environments such as Scrivener (and even Microsoft Word), virtually every writing software program available today offers a full-screen, “distraction-free” mode to aid writers’ ability to concentrate. Many take this a step further by enabling one to focus on individual paragraphs or sentences.
However, just as with MFA programs (and writers themselves), these programs diverge significantly in their overall capabilities. Some (Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses) aim to fill the many diverse roles involved in creating longer works, including research, note-taking, formating and so on. Others seem intent on streamlining and doing one or two things well, and these latter programs tend to specialize in creating an aesthetically pleasing environment in which one can concentrate and be productive.
Write!, a program I had been aware of but not yet tried, is in this mode, but with some distinctive new twists of its own. Last week, a member of its marketing team reached out to inquire whether I’d consider doing a review. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I saw enough promise in the program to purchase a license and give it a test drive. A quick overview follows below.
Let’s start with what is immediately obvious: Write! is a beautifully designed piece of software. On purely aesthetic grounds, it rivals anything else in its field and surpasses most of its competitors. If you’re looking for a program that will get out of your way and let you focus on drafting your story, this is as good as anything out there. It’s also much more capable than the WriteRoom-style editors.
Write! began life as a Windows program; subsequent versions were quickly released for macOS and Linux. Since I write on Mac and Linux, this cross-platform compatibility is a big plus. The program looks and behaves the same on both platforms, as it should. (And it’s easily the best-looking writing program on Linux.) It also syncs your work seamlessly between platforms, thanks to its own, built-in cloud integration (which costs $4.95 per year, starting one year after the purchase date). The program itself costs $14.95. Rather than a traditional license, Write! sets up an account for you—you need to set up this account before you can download the software. There is no trial version, but you can cancel your account and get a refund within the first seven days, should you so choose.
The program is under very rapid development and the developers are quite responsive to users’ suggestions. For example, the program originally defaulted to saving documents in the cloud; there is now an option to save locally. I’m told that, very soon, there will be a localized version of the Cloud panel, which will make the program much more flexible in terms of organizing your work.
Write! is a text editor that supports Markdown, Wiki and Textile syntax. It can export to any of those formats, as well as to .docx, .odt, plain text (.txt), PDF or HTML. A unique feature of the software, visible in both of the above screenshots, is a pure prose take on the Sublime Text coding editor’s “Minimap,” running down from the upper right corner. This bird’s-eye view of your text shows you where you are in your document and you can use the map to navigate up and down.
Here’s a quick rundown of the program’s other features:
Tabs and writing sessions—you can save groups of tabs as a session and return to it later.
Thanks to Write’s built-in cloud storage, you can create links to your documents for sharing with others (NB: Write! uses AWS and 256-bit encryption for cloud storage).
Again thanks to cloud storage, there is an unlimited undo feature. Not that most of us would need that (I hope), but it is a unique feature nonetheless!
Productivity counters, which you can tweak.
Native spell-checking (in multiple languages!), plus online access (via links to your browser) to a thesaurus, Google lookups, translations and Wikipedia.
And here are the quirks and drawbacks, some of which the developers are already working on:
Proprietary cloud storage, as opposed to Dropbox or Google Drive. There are advantages to this, as noted, but you’ll need to determine whether it works for you.
Limited functionality with local files (this will soon be remedied, according to the developers).
Limited import capabilities (though export capabilities are quite strong).
Limited functionality for longer works. Documents can only be combined manually, which would make for extra work in something as long as a novel.
Style restrictions. The built-in styles are gorgeous, but you’ll need to export your work and reformat it to industry standards before submitting.
To summarize: Write! is a relatively new entrant in the highly competitive field of distraction-free text editors and it is already quite strong. The program has a great look and feel, and new features and functionality are being added regularly. If you’re okay with the caveats cited above (some of which are already being addressed) then you’ll find this program provides a satisfying and productive writing environment.
This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.
Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.
It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”
But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.
There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.
The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.