A strange, wise novel

George Saunders is the most lauded short-story writer living today, revered in America to the point of canonisation. Among many other accolades, he has been awarded a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship and named by TIME magazine, in a characteristic departure from reality, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

He rose to prominence in the UK in 2013 with publication of his short story collection The Tenth of December, a bright, brilliant firework of a collection, which received rave reviews and won the inaugural Folio Prize (now the Rathbones Folio Prize). This made his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

Saunders’s stories often follow a certain structure: refusing to explain their rules at first, they seem strange and impenetrable; gradually, a world recognisably like our own is revealed, but in some way estranged or uncanny; the story and its conventions begin to converge purposefully and forcefully; and finally, out of nowhere, we are hit with a wave of compassion, the very last thing we expected of an ostensibly experimental story. Even when we do learn to expect it, the sheer aching sympathy of his characters challenges you to be better, kinder, more humane.

Lincoln in the Bardo follows this same broad structure, charting one night in the graveyard where the young Willie Lincoln, son of Abe, has just been interred. Although Lincoln Sr features, it is really young Willie who is in the bardo, a Tibetan word for an intermediate state between lives in Buddhism, similar to the Christian limbo. None of the characters there are able to acknowledge that they are dead, delicately referring to “that previous place” and calling their coffins “sick-boxes” as if they are merely resting up for a return. All here are restless souls, snagged on some troubling detail of their past life like Williams the hunter, who sits caring for the great pile of animals he has killed.

There is a touching trio of elders who take Willie under their wing: roger bevins iii, a young gay man covered in eyes; hans vollman, who lugs around a “tremendous member”, having been taken ill while anticipating his marriage-bed; and the reverend everly thomas, who is adamant that this is no place for a child, and that Willie must depart as soon as possible, for whatever the next life holds. Except Willie won’t go. He is waiting for his father.

Writing Abraham Lincoln is like playing Hamlet – fraught by competing, contested interpretations, impossible to begin anew – and Saunders confronts the historicity of the novel with a polyphonic, argumentative chorus. Different observers tell us Lincoln’s eyes are “gray”, “gray-brown”, “bluish-brown”, “bluish-gray”, “blue”; he is both “the ugliest man I had ever seen” and, to another, “the handsomest man I ever saw”. Saunders is not reverent towards Lincoln, whom he depicts at one point riding his nag with his long legs hanging down like “some sort of man-sized insect”. But we do not hear Lincoln Sr’s testimony directly – we literally inhabit him, as roger bevins iii and hans vollman sit within him to understand his thoughts.

The novel is not, as is being suggested, a masterpiece, but it does reveal Saunders’s many great qualities, not least of which is the hard-won gift of empathy, and his emphasis on the importance of “kind little words, which are of the same blood as great and holy deeds”. It takes a couple of chapters to attune yourself to the clamour of voices, but the reward is a strange, wise novel, truer in its expression than many ostensibly historical novels, and a reassurance that America has survived a war with itself before.

First published in New Humanist, Spring 2017. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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Book review: Against Everything

Against Everything: On Dishonest Times (Verso) by Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a founding editor of N+1, a New York magazine founded in 2004 which, in retaliation against a prevailing culture of irony and indifference, declared in its first issue that it was “time to say what you mean”. Greif and his co-founders appeared to be answering the call of David Foster Wallace a decade earlier, when he had written in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’, born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.”

Twelve years on from the magazine’s launch, Greif has amassed a collection of sober and enquiring essays on topics as diverse as gym culture, hipsters, the function of police and learning to rap. The author has described Against Everything as “a cultural argument in linked essays”, building up a picture of a society moulded, often unconsciously, by the logic of consumer capitalism. It is not a far cry, in its concerns, from another book Verso has published in the same month, by Stuart Jeffries, arguing for the importance of the Frankfurt School. But although informed by theory, Greif’s argument is mercifully light on jargon, opting for philosophy in plain English and careful deliberation over the everyday.

The first section of the book reflects on “the rules of food, of sex, of exercise, of health, [which] give us ways of avoiding facing up to a freedom from care that we may already have within reach.” These are areas of our lives which, he argues, are no longer governed by necessity but by fetishisation, private needs turned into public, monetised performances: deferring the convenience of food by seeking out arcane ingredients, sexualising youth as a way of commoditising the body, turning exercise into a public pursuit of something other than health. Since we no longer struggle for survival, we create artificial obstacles, impose new rules of struggle, to lend our lives meaning.

These essays are an earnest attempt to examine the points of friction between capitalism and our daily lives, as well as an attempt to discover their resolution. Greif has always been a remarkably prescient and insightful essayist – in 2006, he had already begun to write about issues, such as Universal Basic Income, that would reach the mainstream only after the financial crisis and the resulting Occupy movement – but his elegance has grown with time, leaving behind his earlier flirtation with portentousness (“Let the future, at least, know that we were fools… Record our testament[!]”). Some of the most rewarding passages in the collection are, therefore, the most recent, such as his essay on policing, or his editorial update to the essay on reality television, which brilliantly dissects the bland horror of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

And yet his anti-capitalist heroes are not necessarily those of the 20th or 21st century. In a series exploring the “Meaning of Life”, Greif rejects the accrual of hedonistic experience or mere objects, and harks back to the first Greek philosophers, the aestheticism of Gustave Flaubert and, particularly, the perfectionism of Henry David Thoreau. For a writer ostensibly against everything, Greif finds an unexpected solace in the lives of others as an antithesis to one’s own life, synthesising a new self and continuing the search. As he points out, “the instant for philosophy is always now, and every day, because some of us need a lifetime for it. We are slow learners.”

First published in New Humanist, Winter 2016. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

The Pixar Guide to Wellbeing

On its release in America, Inside Out had the biggest opening weekend for any original film in box office history, sailing easily past Avatar’s $77m to an incredible $91m. It’s already Pixar’s eighth consecutive film to have taken over $500m worldwide, and we’ve only just had the opening weekend here in the UK, where it took £7.35m. If some were beginning to worry that the studio had gone the way of Disney, following five years of prequels, sequels and the critically mixed reception to their fairy tale, Brave, this new film has proven that Pixar is still capable of the funny, surprising and layered storytelling that made its name. But the secret ingredient of this film’s success? Sadness.

Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley and the five emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness – that live in the control room of her head. When Riley’s family moves away from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco, she loses sight of the core memories that tell her who she is, prompting Joy and Sadness to go on a journey deep into her mind to get them back. The topography grates: having to catch the Train of Thought home because Honesty Island has crumbled sounds like the worst allegory since Pilgrim’s Progress, if you think about it too hard. But as Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and president, wrote in his book Creativity Inc., ‘If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better,’ and in the hands of Pixar’s story artists, the landscape of Riley’s mind becomes the battleground for a new way of looking at wellbeing.

It’s one of Pixar’s funniest films, the jokes coming thick and fast throughout the film (‘There’s inductive reasoning, there’s déjà vu, there’s language processing, there’s déjà vu, there’s critical thinking, there’s déjà vu…’). Perhaps the best gag is watching the maintenance workers hoover up long term memories like phone numbers (‘We don’t need these! They’re in her phone’), leaving only the names of a couple of US presidents and the ditty to a chewing gum advert.

Riley’s main problems – growing up, and moving away from her childhood home – are identical to those of Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story. In the latter, Andy’s fear and distress is played out by the toys, the whole story enacting the kind of imaginary play we might expect to see in a child’s psychological evaluation, with Woody and Buzz vying as male role models (the implication being that the family is downsizing following a divorce). When Inside Out treats the same topic, the adventure is the emotional journey itself: will Joy reign over Riley’s head once again?

Up to now, Joy has called the shots in Riley’s mental HQ, and she keeps life on track by being relentlessly positive, looking for the bright side in everything and telling the others to ‘think positive’. When Sadness starts to intrude on the controls, Joy’s response is to draw a chalk circle on the ground and tell her to stand inside it. But when things go really wrong for Riley, it’s not because Sadness has taken the helm and won’t let go. Instead, the colour drains out of the console, and it stops responding to any of the emotions. As sufferers of depression attest, the problem is not overwhelming feeling but the inability to feel.

Inside Out SadnessThis is where Sadness comes in. When we get a glimpse into Riley’s mother’s head at the dinner table, we can see her own Sadness is in charge of operations, and that’s why, even though yellow Joy is generally in charge of Riley’s HQ, she has Sadness’s blue hair and aura. Perhaps worried that Riley might take after her, Riley’s mother wants her to be a ‘happy girl’, but as things go from bad to worse, the pressure to be happy begins to seem like the real problem. Indeed, recent studies by social psychologist Dr Brock Bastian and others confirm that negativity is often our most useful companion when times are tough – it helps us anticipate problems, find solutions and empathise with others when things are going badly. It’s not negative emotions that are bad for us, but the suppression of them, especially when they are healthy, functional responses to difficult situations.

Pixar have never shied away from presenting everything that life can throw at you. Perhaps the most famous example is in the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together at the start of Up, which, taken alone, stands as perhaps the greatest short film of all time, not just for its miracle of condensation, but for the emotional impact of their childlessness, which has reduced audiences of all ages to tears. (Careful viewers may even spot scenes from this sequence in the great bowling-ball alleys of Riley’s long term memory.) Equally, on the death of Riley’s imaginary friend, who sacrifices himself to save Joy, the cinema erupted with the sound of children crying, which is just as well because I think a number of the adults were sniffing too. The whole audience left the cinema elated.

In this latest film, Pixar are not just putting us through the mill. They’re showing us that, somewhat paradoxically, the way to be really happy is to experience a whole range of emotions. When Riley is born, there is only Joy, standing in front of a laughter button, but as Riley grows older, she is joined by Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. When life gets really tough, Sadness is not the antagonist she first appears, but the unsung hero. That’s the real lesson: Joy might be fun to hang around, but wellbeing is a team effort.

Article first published by Prospect Magazine