Why you should care
Because this American writer can leave readers shaken … in a good way.
IfeOluwa Nihinlola is a Lagos-based writer and editor. His essays and short stories have been featured in magazines such as Klorofyl, Saraba, Afreada and Omenana, and he writes about music for MusicInAfrica.net.
I first encountered George Saunders via a New York Times profile, which described his collection of short stories Tenth of December as “the best book you’ll read this year.” That was back in 2013, and the hyperbolic nature of it caught my attention. I was living in Nkwelle Ezunaka, a village in Anambra State where I taught physics and technology by day, blogged at night and read novels every chance I got.
When the Man Booker Prize opened to novelists of any nationality, including Americans, many thought it was a reaction to the Folio Prize, a London-based prize seen as a more literary alternative to the Booker — the inaugural edition of which was won by Saunders in 2014 for Tenth of December. Three years later, Saunders’ Booker triumph for Lincoln in the Bardo plays on many fears about the Americanization of the prize. Saunders’ winning means that, for now, I don’t share that concern.
There was no easy way to explain to a lover of lyricism that characters in a Saunders story only become lyrical when they’re injected with a serum that loosens their inhibitions.
The nostalgia for “Britishness” is evoked in many of the narratives of this year’s Booker nominees. Ali Smith’s Autumn, the first in a series of novels written after the British referendum to leave the European Union, touches on the divisiveness following Brexit — and the building of walls, both physical and mental. Moshin Hamid’s Exit West takes walls and doors and turns them into portals granting access to other parts of the world in ways that complicate any kind of nationalism — even Britishness.
Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is set in 1862, far removed from the present, and yet it speaks to our realities through ghosts who talk over one another like avatars in a group chat. Their unfiltered thoughts are presented on the page like monologues in a play. The narration is goofy but filled with earnest, sentimental passages that honor the real-life background of the novel — President Lincoln visiting the crypt of his son Willie.
Recently, I walked with a friend through Jazzhole, a boutique book and record store in Lagos and saw a copy of Pastoralia, Saunders’ second collection of stories, in a stack of books. I tried to explain my love of Saunders to my friend, but I ended up sounding like a proselyting Christian. There was no easy way to explain to a lover of lyricism that characters in a Saunders story only become lyrical when they’re injected with a serum that loosens their inhibitions — and that there is value in seeing the world through the eyes of that drugged character.
From initially reading his stories in The New Yorker and then reading his books, it hasn’t been difficult to catch a clear glimpse of Saunders’ ambitions. Perhaps this is because I am practiced, like many Nigerians, in the art of seeing the world as imagined by white men. Saunders seems to be aware of the existence of readers like me in Lincoln in the Bardo, where he gives ample space for the experience of non-white ghosts. He really shouldn’t have bothered: In Nigerian films, the ghosts are always clad in white.
Reading about ghosts entering human bodies might seem extreme, but it is the more familiar of Saunders’ devices. The idea of death as a continuum is contained in Yoruba myths like that of the àkúdàáyá, one of many ways life is understood through what some might refer to as fantasy (it isn’t) like the àbíkú who moves between this world and a realm of dreams in Booker-winning Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
By changing a few details about the world as it already is, Saunders has always revealed the dark nature of the conditions of living we have set for ourselves. It may be weird to have women imported from other countries and turned into yard decorations, but it isn’t difficult to relate that to the practice of having “house girls” in Nigeria.
George Saunders’ early New Yorker stories may have been sordid and extreme in their portrayal of a world blighted by consumerism, but, especially in Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, he is also that “decent realtor” in Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” who, “walking you through a real shithole, chirps on / about good bones: This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.” Loquacious ghosts lurking in the bardo are revealed to be characters looking for a connection to the world they’ve left behind, hoping to be seen.
The announcement of the 2017 Man Booker Prize resulted in activity on WhatsApp group chats with friends across continents — we talk over one another like ghosts in the bardo. Most seem happy that a writer we love is finding even more acclaim. In my many failed attempts to write stories like Saunders, I have found it impossible to achieve his mix of humor, absurdity and genuine compassion toward the human condition.
And this is why I still send his stories to writer friends, hoping they someday will write stories that leave me shaken like the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo.