Celebrating Black History Month With George Saunders and Colson Whitehead
By Stuart Mitchner
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House $17) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Anchor $16.95), both available now in paperback, appeared on either side of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” that took place on November 8, 2016.
Instead of using “catastrophe” or “debacle” for the election, I’m borrowing Saunders’ term for the lightning-flash-and-crack explosion that catapults souls not-yet-dead from the Buddhist limbo of the bardo to their fate in the afterlife.
“Beautiful and Insane”
To the Time magazine interviewer describing him as “a slipstream writer who incorporates sci-fi or fantastic elements into otherwise realist fiction,” Saunders says that “just a straightforward ‘realist’ representation of life seems to leave a lot of stuff on the table in terms of the real confusions and emotional complexities and beauties and terrors that are experienced even in a relatively bourgeois life like mine. I really consider myself, ultimately, a Gogolian, trying to get at what life feels like, but knowing that, to do that, we might have to swing a little wildly. Because life itself is so beautiful and insane.”
This is the first time to my knowledge that a fiction writer has claimed a tribal connection with the author of Dead Souls. Or maybe by identifying as an inhabitant of the planet Gogol, Saunders is acknowledging the sci-fi element in his work. Or maybe it’s only one of the numerous amusing possibilities that his literary tour de force puts in play in spite of the solemnity of its anecdotal-historical subject, which is President Lincoln’s mourning of his 11-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862.
Saunders reveals the spirit behind the enterprise with his reaction (“Ooh, fun”) to a former student’s idea that if he “ever wrote a novel, it would be in the form of a series of monologues.” At the same time, he was trying to avoid “some obvious pitfalls/buzzkills” like writing “a 300-page Lincoln monologue” or taking “a straightforward narrative approach, à la: ‘On a dark night, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, entered the dark graveyard furtively.’ Ugh.”
One obvious pitfall could be that Saunders has 343 pages of fun exploring the more extensive landscape of the novel after the confines of short fiction. The effect is that even as the wildly inventive voice-to-voice relay race drives the reading experience, one can’t help wondering “Where is this going and does there have to be so much of it?” Approaching the end, I found myself less interested in the imagined voices than in the documented accounts of Lincoln in the thrall of love and loss, particularly the passages taken from the logbook of the watchman opening the cemetery gate for the “Pres,” who declined “my offer of lantern saying he would not need it for he saw pretty good in the dark and always had and went off through that very space only yesterday filled with the many hundreds standing on the lawn in the drizzle in their black coats and upraised umbrellas and the sounds of the sad organ from within and I returned to guardhouse which is where I am now writing this while outside his poor little horse’s eager hoofs sound against the cobblestone as if his master’s proximity [is] causing him to do a stationary horse dance preparatory to long ride home.”
After reading Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad, in that order, I emailed a friend for some feedback and learned that she’d listened to both audiobooks and thought the Whitehead “brilliant,” and the Saunders “interesting,” although she’d had trouble keeping her focus on the latter: “I listen to books while walking the dog, my mind drifts, and Bardo requires close attention.” She says she may “try again with a hard copy.”
It’s hard to think of any actor dead or alive capable of reciting Lincoln in the Bardo, which is undoubtedly why the audio book required 166 readers, including the author himself and an all-star cast.
The Slave Catcher
A strong, sympathetic recitation might benefit The Underground Railroad, where after sustaining powerfully imagined chapters recounting his teenage protagonist Cora’s flight from Georgia through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the author runs aground in Indiana. The slide begins with Whitehead’s focus on the character of the slave catcher Ridgeway, who is compared by some reviewers to Javert in Les Miserables, except Victor Hugo’s monomaniacal stalker isn’t prone to prosaic speculations about poverty or the French penal system. In spite of Whitehead’s attempts to work Ridgeway’s discourses on manifest destiny and American history into the narrative, the reader’s commitment to the movement of the story takes a hit. “We do our part,” Ridgeway tells the captured Cora, “slave and slave catcher. Master and colored boss.” This is after discoursing about “the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription — the American imperative.”
Sounding like a stand-in for the author, Ridgeway expands on his historic role: “I’m a notion of order. The slave that disappears — it’s a notion, too. Of hope. Undoing what I do so that a slave the next plantation over gets an idea that it can run, too. If we allow that, we accept the flaw in the imperative. And I refuse.”
Compare this version of Ridgeway with the one introduced early in the novel. Although the slavecatcher is already talking about the American imperative, he has supposedly left “the burden” of his blacksmith father’s “philosophy” behind: “Ridgeway was not working the spirit. He was not the smith, rendering order. Not the hammer. Not the anvil. He was the heat.”
In Indiana, the last stop on Whitehead’s underground railroad, the speechifying weighs on the narrative, which loses momentum, giving way to a communal farm, a corn shucking bee, and sentences like this: “By proving the negro’s thrift and intelligence, Mingo argued, he will enter into American society with full rights,” which is followed by another speaker holding all too familiarly forth: “We are not one people but many different people. How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race — which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?”
The platitudes precede an ambush with overtones of the assassination of Malcolm X, the speaker shot in the chest, “dragging down the lectern” as “a chorus of rifle fire, screams, and broken glass, and a mad scramble overtook the meeting hall.”
After the masterful writing at the heart of the story, the decline in quality comes exactly when the novel should be gathering its forces for a conclusion worthy of its better angels. Instead, Whitehead reunites Cora and the slave catcher for the denouement, as they descend the steep steps leading down to the railroad, she thinking “Tonight I will hold him close, as if in a slow dance. As if it were just the two of them in the lonesome world, bound to each other until the end of the song.” So she locks her arms around him, pulling him off balance, holding him “like a lover” as they tumble down to the bottom. Improbably, the girl survives the fall and the slave catcher doesn’t, apparently dying as his black servant records his last words, discoursing to the end: “The American imperative is a splendid thing … a beacon … a shining beacon.” Although intended to give climactic force to the satirical and surreal power of the novel’s most memorable passages, this is a death scene no one but Shakespeare or some master of black comedy or the theater of the absurd could bring off.
The True Beacons
In spite of struggling with the so-called “curse of the denouement,” Saunders and Whitehead have produced two extraordinary acts of novelistic imagination, each one “a shining beacon” in a dark time. When The Underground Railroad was published, Barack Obama was still in office and the First Lady was telling a cheering crowd at the Democratic Convention “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
Months later came the event that put Trump in the White House.
Says the ghost of Roger Bevins near the end of Lincoln in the Bardo, “Never before had Mr. Vollman or I been so proximate to the matterlightblooming phenomenon and its familiar, but always bone-chilling firesound.” Says the ghost of Mr. Vollman: “The resulting explosion knocked us off our feet.”
On this, the last day of Black History Month, I think Mr. Whitehead would agree with Mr. Saunders that while we might have to “swing a little wildly” because life is so “beautiful and insane,” we’re getting back on our feet.