Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

When I first heard that Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, announced he was sick of arguing there should be a black hobbit and was writing his own Africa-inspired fantasy series, I was thrilled. Not simply due to the change of setting, all-too typically western Europe-inspired in the genre, but because I often bemoan the lack of ambitious, well-written prose in fantasy. It’s often basic and obvious and uninspiring. I already knew James was a great writer so this wouldn’t be an issue.

Years later, it finally arrived. And… well… at first, I was mighty disappointed. The initial hundred pages of this book are not good. We’re introduced to our first person protagonist, Tracker, a man with a magical nose, who is in prison being interrogated about events of the recent past. The novel is Tracker relating to his inquisitors what actually happened over the past few years: a quest to find a lost boy that spins wildly out of control.

I will start by comparing this book to Game of Thrones, despite Roxane Gay’s top Goodreads review saying not to, due to both books’ extremely brutal nature. How can you not compare Black Leopard  to the series that popularized an entire sub genre of physically and sexually violent works? GoT brought us worlds that were highly reactionary to the heroic fantasy of the past. It’s hard to think that something that is as endlessly, horrifically, eye-rollingly violent (while still trying to be cool) as Black Leopard would exist without Martin’s success.

Even if I’m wrong about that, I’m still going to make a GoT comparison. The reason Martin’s books work for me and many dark fantasies afterward didn’t (including the GoT TV show!) is because while violent and grim, the novels are not without hope. They begin as a family drama; we are introduced to characters we care about, whom we want to protect from the miserable worlds they inhabit. The sex and violence is not the focus. Black Leopard begins by describing a similarly miserable world (in spirit if not substance) except I’m given no reason to care. Great violence is visited on Tracker, but he visits violence on others on the slightest whim. Also, it’s clear from the start that he hates women (more on that later). As a reader, there’s little to emotionally latch on to. We literally have characters announcing to each other “Nobody loves no one”. Might as well be an accurate statement in this world. I almost put the book down.

But I kept at it! And began to care. I can’t even give you a good reason why. More characters were introduced, all terrible people, but compelling. The plot itself picked up. Why was Tracker hunting this mysterious boy? Who was he? I also came to appreciate the writing itself, more and more. It’s heavily repetitious but eventually I found myself repeating Tracker’s signature ‘Fuck the gods!’ along with him. I also enjoyed the dialect, especially the way the various monsters or Sogolon the Witch speaks. Eventually, we’re introduced to Tracker’s soon-to-be lover, Mossi, and he becomes the beating heart of the novel, able to see the good in our hero, even when we, the reader inside his head, can not.

I want to put a good word in for the monsters lurking in the forests and jungles of James’ imagination. Demons that run on the ceiling. Hideously deformed men with bat wings or too-long arms or bird feet, reeking of dead flesh. Baby-stealing witches supping on fresh organs. I like a good monster and there’s plenty here. They’re scary and well realized and possess the right amount of a camp. I feel like a good barometer of whether or not you’ll like this book is: do you find a giant spider-man that shoots impenetrable web-cum from his spider-dick to be offensive and stupid or hilarious and creepy (and yes, a little stupid)? When, towards the end, one of the monstrous villains declares:

They think my brother like the flesh and I like the blood, but I eat anything.

The same fearful grin I wore as a way-too-young child watching the horror movie House suddenly blossomed.

The non-monster violence never meshed with me. Our main characters are able to best dozens of armed men single handedly. Limbs pop off like champagne corks. There’s a lame magic cliche that allows Tracker to pull off such a feat. It’s a fantasy trope I dislike. I suppose you can see it more as a metaphorical device for his rage to “kill the whole world”. Regardless, Tracker’s near invincibility lowers the stakes in otherwise tense situations. There are also MULTIPLE situations where Tracker is captured and strung up by some beast or creep or another and then suddenly wakes up free of them with no explanation. What the hell is that about?

I mentioned earlier Tracker has a problem with women. He does, partially by narrative design. Mossi calls him on this and he attempts some reconciliations but it’s unconvincing. The text itself doesn’t help. Women are kept at arm’s length throughout the novel and the most important ones are diabolical schemers, ready to dispose of Tracker (or anyone else) for their own personal, matriarchal power. While I liked the conclusion of the plot, it leaves further uncomfortable questions about women and power.

In summary: Monsters = good, prose = good, plot = pretty good, likeable characters = hella low, violence = uneven and often bad, misogyny = bad, too-long prologue = bad, me = ready for the next one.

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

I did not identify with Harry Haller, the ‘Steppenwolf’, as many readers do, especially those who read this book much younger than I. Instead, I was inclined to roll my eyes at his struggles, wherein he decries how hard it is to be intelligent and love Mozart in a world where people are generally not intelligent and love jazz (Hesse makes sure to toss in some overt racism while describing jazz). Of especial annoyance was when Harry goes on at length about how much he detests the bourgeois but repeatedly takes advantage of the comfort bourgeois life provides for him. My thoughts around then were: What a fucking baby. These thoughts morphed to incredulity when he surmises that the only reason the bourgeois class survives, given that they are so damn stupid, is people like HIM, wolves among the sheep. My god.

This is the first third of Steppenwolf — how tortured a soul is Harry Haller, so much better than everyone else, and life among the bourgeois class is just so hard, might as well kill yourself as aesthetics demand. I wanted to mail him David Foster Wallace’s essay on mindfulness. But, eventually, I did warm to Harry a bit. Gained a little empathy. The truth is that he was a German who lived through World War 1, while protesting it as wrong the whole way through. Now, it’s the late 20s and he sees WW2 coming and his countrypeople very rapidly falling in line with the nationalistic garbage that will launch it. There is a chilling line where Hesse writes of ‘the holocaust to come’, years before it occurs. This makes the Steppenwolf’s mindset and belief that he is unique among fools more understandable at least.

The middle third is where he looks to beautiful women to save him from himself. Yawn.

The final third is kind of awesome. Harry attends a costume party and descends into hell, which is the basement, and ends up tumbling through the doorways of his own mind, which includes an apocalyptic future of man vs. machine where he and a previously unmentioned childhood bud shoot up evil cars. And a doorway marked “love”, where he re-meets every woman he failed to seduce in his life and bangs them. My god.

There’s a slew of philosophy sprinkled throughout the novel. Some of it is interesting to read and I did like this paragraph, spoken by Harry’s gothic pixie dreamgirl, Hermine:

“No, it isn’t fame. It is what I call eternity. The pious call it the kingdom of God. I say to myself: all we who ask too much and have a dimension too many could not contrive to live at all if there were not another air to breathe outside the air of this world, if there were not eternity at the back of time; and this is the kingdom of truth. The music of Mozart belongs there and the poetry of your great poets. The saints, too, belong there who have worked wonders and suffered martyrdom and given a great example to men. But the image of every true act, the strength of every true feeling, belongs to eternity just as much, even though no one knows it or sees it or records it or hands it down to posterity. In eternity there is no posterity.”

I don’t believe that literally, but metaphorically it makes for a pleasing and comforting image. Mostly though, the musings here were familiar. The duality of Steppenwolf and the further realization that Harry is made of many more than two personalities? Eh. That a single person is made up of many personalities is not revelatory, it is both obvious and banal.

Hesse is a talented enough writer that I didn’t hate reading this. There are some legitimately good bits. But I was glad when I was done.

The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als

I’ve been reading these collections for several years now and I’m not sure how likely I am to continue. At least a few essays used to really grab me. Last few years? Eh. Not so much. The weird thing is this collection doesn’t even seem bad and the intro essay, Hilton Als piece of the day-to-day exhaustion of racism and the difficulty of slinging ‘fuck you’s back at the world, is fantastic.

Is it me? Is it the collection? Is it the sordid state of world!?? I’m not sure.

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

The Art at the End of the World by Heidi Julavits — I liked this essay when I read it and I like it even more as I reflect on it. Our narrator drags her husband and two kids out to the Great Salt Lake, where sometime in the 70s, a peculiar land artist created a sort of jetty that spirals into the water. He did so intentionally during a drought so it can be seen only rarely. The family’s trip is heavily inspired by Julavits’ childhood on the coast of Maine, during the height of the Cold War and imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. Being at the edge of the world in Maine, she could easily imagine apocalyptic wastelands. Now, under threat of the effects of climate change, she wants her children, who live a city life far from the end of the world, to become equipped to imagine the end of all (most) things. The Great Salt Lake and a sometimes-seen artwork is the avenue for this. How to prepare for likely mass destruction? Learn to cope with the wasteland. Good stuff.   

The Other Steve Harvey by Steve Harvey — No, he’s not that Steve Harvey, man of the wondrous ‘stache, though on the phone he is confused as such. This Harvey’s essay about the face we put to the world and all the assumptions that come with it, and more importantly, the assumptions we make based purely on the faces we see on others is excellent. Musings on Trayvon Martin and Barrack Obama follow. How to make it so the first thing a person notices about another person is not that they are black is the question here, of which Harvey doesn’t have much of an answer as he repeatedly fails at trying to achieve it.

My Father’s Cellar by John Seabrook — In a spectacular effort to imitate the upper crust of England, Seabrook’s father has a highly prized, lovingly crafted wine cellar in the basement of their house. The locked door is hidden behind a bookcase, and when later the cellar is expanded, the second set of rooms is behind a fake brick wall. It’s almost immediately obvious here that Seabrook the child will become Seabrook the alcoholic, but this isn’t an essay whose strength is revelation. Instead, it’s a remarkably well drawn slice of life. I feel like I walked through that cellar, feel like I met Seabrook Sr.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Daniel lives with Daddy and his sister Cathy in the woods, in a house of their own making.

This is a small story. Much of it is describing Daniel and his family’s life, current and past, with austere and beautiful descriptions of the copse in which they now live. Eventually, a plot appears. It turns out that Daddy did not own the land he built the family house on, and an age-old question is posed: who truly owns the land? The landowner or the person living on it? Why is the answer not: the community?

This is only half of the question of ownership. The other half: bodies. Who owns them? When a character who represents tenants in a nearby village being squeezed by exorbitant rents begins to wax poetic about the good old union days when workers were fairly treated, another character (a woman), points out how those good ‘ole union boys were like to drink too much and go home and beat their wives. Similarly, throughout the book, Cathy is predated on by men, boys.

The story is told in Daniel’s first person perspective; Daniel, who lives in the woods, ignorant of the world; long-haired, midriff-bared, effeminate. Despite the tight perspective, there is something distant and ethereal about him. Simply living a rural lifestyle does not explain him; Daddy and Cathy, who know far more of the world, see him as something fragile that must be protected. It’s this lens combined with the stellar writing that elevates Elmet, makes it an engrossing version of a story that has been told many times before.

Magnetic Fields by Ron Loewinsohn

This a slim book about spaces. The spaces we inhabit, the spaces we invade. It all starts with a burglar whose taste for stealing tape decks (it’s the 70s!) is replaced by by his desire to simply exist in other people’s homes, consider their lives, drink their coffee and steal their used ashtrays.

There’s a strange feeling to being in someone else’s house, especially when they’re not home. We know that each item has its place, its emotional connections and history. Home robbery is a great violation of privacy, regardless of what is actually stolen. Magnetic Fields exists inside that feeling, both the field we create by living within it, and those fields others create that we can enter or attempt to penetrate.

From Albert the burglar, the novel moves on to other characters, other lives. The last person burglarized is a composer, who moves to a summer home with his family. He considers the inhabitants of that house, and the point of view shifts to enter their lives, and how their home is now invaded by the composer and his family, much like Albert invaded theirs.

Loewinsohn is a poet. Magnetic Fields is composed of short, tight sentences. There’s nothing lyrical about it, and “lyrical” is what I associate with poetry even though I know that is incomplete and wrong. It is only over time that the poetry influence of the book becomes clear: its structure. Passages recur, inexplicably, across chapters. Images repeat. Certain sexual acts or specific sounds. There is most likely some mathematical structure behind it; it elevates both the cohesion of the narrative and the discomfort conjured by the constant invasions of privacy.

The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover

While browsing at the bookstore, I picked up the sequel to this book first. Imagine my surprise to find that there was nearly fifty years between the writing of book one (Origin) and book two (Wrath). For that reason alone, I had to read them.

West Condon. 1960s. Church Sundays and beers on the front porch. Italian immigrants and casual misogyny. Highschoolers making it in the back of cars. I was born in the mid-80s, twenty years after this book was set yet it’s remarkable how familiar the working class family community of West Condon feels. Shit I’ve completely forgotten about. The bad: men calling women “broads” or anti-Italian slurs. The good: a greater awareness and understanding of changing seasons, the smells, tastes, fresh spring sun on your skin. It was strange, unsettling.

The first 80ish pages of The Origin of the Brunists is a harrowing account of a mining disaster. Starting with miners filing into work for the night shift, taking the elevator down to the mine, and unbeknownst to them, their doom. I was again struck by familiarity. I worked the night shift for years, in a warehouse loading trucks. OK, maybe I’m dramatizing by comparing that to descending into the bowels of the earth, obliterating my lungs, and putting my life on the line daily, but still. I did almost drop a carburetor on my foot once.

Anyway, the shifting-point of views that demonstrate daily life in the mine and then the terrible disaster that rips it apart and kills ninety seven men is the best part of the novel. It can’t be overstated how miserable the role of a miner is whether it be 1966 or 2018. The novel flounders for a bit, following the disaster, is at its worst for 50-100 pages before it picks up the main thrust of the plot: Giovanni Bruno, the sole survivor of those trapped in the mine, is rescued and an emergent cult forms around the few words he can manage to dislodge from his oxygen-starved brain.

Origin feels like a proto-Stephen King novel. You know those books that flit between a dozen or more townspeople, immerse us deeply in their point of view, then move on to the next person, often displaying a contradictory angle to the person before? Needful Things, Under the Dome, etc. It’s a similar set-up here, except instead of greed and devilry, the town is afflicted by economic depression and religious mania. A specter hovers behind the Brunists. While the mine disaster is behind their rise in the most obvious sense (Bruno himself), it’s the economic and social reality behind it that truly drives it. Mining is a very dangerous job, but in some locations it’s just about the only job. Most of the early adopters of Bruno’s cult are widowed by the disaster or facing no prospects following the mine’s closure. It’s a search for answers/solace/community and especially meaning and closure that creates the Brunists, a cult slash religion that is absolutely sure the world will end soon. It didn’t end this weekend? OK, it’s for sure going to end next weekend. 

I liked this book a great deal. It didn’t completely blow me away, but the town felt so grounded that even had I not already become intrigued by the fifty year gap between them, I’d be reading the sequel. There’s a solidity to the prose that’s difficult to describe. West Condon happened. I need to know the next chapter. 

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This book starts strong. Harari clears up the common misconception that the evolutionary progress of humanity is a straight line with stops at neanderthal or homo erectus before arriving at homo sapiens. While our distant ancestors lingered in their cradle in Africa, others left and scattered across Europe and Asia. And when homo sapiens finally decided to leave their home and explore new lands, the other types of human were still out there. From brawnier and bigger-brained homo neanderthalensis to dwarf-sized homo flores. The fact that only sapiens are around now, or indeed any time in the past thirty thousand years, is an ominous hint to what happened when they encountered the other humans.

What set our ancestors apart? Fiction.

Around seventy thousand years ago, home sapiens underwent a cognitive revolution. Prior to this point, we had no problem using language to talk about real things (i.e. “Stay away from the river, there’s a lion!). After this point, we could conceive of things that do not exist (i.e. “The lion-man, whom we should worship, appeared to me in the fire and commanded us to cross the great river to new lands”.) In addition to acting as the genesis for art and religion, this also allowed humans to mobilize and organize in much larger groups than otherwise possible. If a stranger is also a disciple of the lion-man, you can trust and cooperate with him without preamble. This led not only to sapiens triumph over other humans, but also allowed for organized religion, nation states, and international corporations.

Cool stuff.

But once we depart the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and discover agriculture, Sapiens falters in several ways. Foremost is that it ceases to be surprising. While Harari does posit the extraordinary claim that agriculture was a disaster and quality of life for the average person plummeted (disease, famine, etc), most of the rest of it is stuff I’ve heard before. People became stationary, surplus allowed the rise of a specialist class, yatta, yatta.

Beyond that, the narrative also loses focus. It becomes a list of life-changing fictional inventions such as money, religion, and empire. It feels more like a collection of insights rather than a coherent history. The bits on empire are the strongest, and tie closely to the original thesis on the cognitive revolution and using fiction to organize, but the money section is strictly inferior to reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and I can barely remember what went on about religion.

The book closes with some science fiction, despite the author’s spurious claim that “This is not science fiction.” Post-history, wherein we become superhumans of some kind. Cyborgs or AIs or internet-connected hiveminds. Something truly beyond sapien:

Such a cyborg would no longer be human, or even organic. It would be something completely different. It would be so fundamentally another kind of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or political implications.

Sapiens was pleasant enough to read. The first section is legitimately good. The rest of the book brought me to a realization: I’ve read enough generalized non-fiction at this point that, barring a serious historical or scientific breakthrough of some kind, they naturally appear repetitive and in a significant way I’ll be failing at the goal of reading non-fiction in the first place: gaining knowledge. I’ve been reluctant to pick up more specific books about, say the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire or the history of the pitbull. There seems like a higher risk that it will be less “useful” knowledge or that the specificity of the topic will lead the subject-dedicated author to be more a biased source. No matter. I must strike off from the generalized path.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić

In the afterword to his novel The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), Hermann Broch states that political indifference is closely linked to ethical depravity, that is, that politically innocent people are to a considerable degree ethically suspect, that they bear ethical blame, and stresses that the German populace did not feel responsible for Hitler’s coming to power because they considered themselves “apolitical”, in no way connected to what was happening around them. And what about the “apolitical” Croatian populace, which is selectively apolitical? How does it cope with what was happening and is still happening around it? It doesn’t. It enjoys music and applauds. And writes rigged history.

Damn.

This scathing indictment, which can be leveled at virtually all western nations, exemplifies Belladonna, a book about atrocity, about memory, about death. It’s a book that reserves several pages for a list of names of jewish children murdered from one small town in the 40s, a book that wants you to gaze at the abyss, in full (impossible), that fascism rent so deeply into European landscape and consciousness.

Our protagonist is Andreas Ban, a man with a lame leg, a lame hand, a cancerous breast, the spine of a 90 year old, glaucoma, suspiciously red-tinged eyes, and an isolated and troubled soul. Ban battles the truth of his own mortality, rapidly seeping away.  

He skips the first phase, the phase of rejecting the illness, he’s no fool. So he confronts it. The second phase, the phase of anger (fuck off!), settles down, he no longer shouts at the doctor, he’s tame. He rushes into the third phase, bargaining, with one sentence– Give me ten years— to which Dr. Toffetti replies, Perhaps. But then you’ll come back for another ten, and Andres Ban falls silent.

Ban’s health and history are only the half of it. He’s also obsessed with the Second World War. The holocaust looms foremost, yet it’s not simply German maleficence he’s concerned with, but the complicity of all of Europe. Examples include the Balkan states barbaric excecutions of Jewish villagers by their neighbors before the Germans even got there. Or, to take a different tact, the Dutch expelling Germans from the Netherlands post-WW2, even those who had emigrated long before the war and had Dutch spouses and children. It’s not simply the scale of torture and murder that pains Andreas, but the lengths people will go to forget, to shrug into apolitical stupor. They’ll go so far as to spin that loss of memory and responsibility into hero worship of men directly responsible for death camps.

This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read. There is no light at the end of the tunnel — just another train you can’t avoid. People will continue to forget our greatest crimes, even deny they ever occurred in the first place. Holocaust denial is on the rise. Consider this maddening article about Poland ascribing jailtime to telling the truth about its own complicity in the holocaust. It will depend on the reader whether Sadness or Anger is the primary emotion roused by Belladonna. For me, it was bitter anger. The same anger that erupts when watching Americans rewrite slavery or the Civil War. It’s not only a battle for human rights, but one for our collective memory, our history. 

Drndić is a deft writer, and the front and back covers of Belladonna are eager to compare it to the work of W. G. Sebald. Though there are a handful of paragraphs that devolve into an unclear word-salad, especially when delving a little too deeply into Andreas subconscious, most of the book can be opened at random to reveal clever insights: 

Cooking shows have long been universal hits. It might be worth asking why. Particularly since they are becoming increasingly tedious, unwatchable and undigestable. Since there is an ever-greater number of poor people, particularly those for whom TV shows are their only mental superstructure, these shows are also offensive. Lively performances by smiling chefs take place in elegant kitchens where high-quality pots and pans are used, the ingredients are expensive and often exotic. As Andreas fears that when he retires his nutrition will be reduced to chicken wings and innards and that he will, heaven forbid, go to the market just before it is blasted by water cannons to pick up a few rotten apples and discarded salad leaves, he find this nutrition craze nauseating.

Balkan history is unfamiliar to me, like I would assume it is for most Americans. I was a gradeschooler when the Yugoslav Wars broke out and the level of truth and history exposed to children at the time was shamelessly minimal. Yet it is important. As right-wing fascism takes deeper root in America, our own suddenly-confident Nazis scuttle from gutters like the rat on Belladonna’s cover, and we must look to the peoples who have been struggling with it for decades. It’s a disease some thought cured when the allies dismantled Auschwitz, but it lingers as a misshapen tumor, always lurking beneath humanity’s fragile skin. 

Let’s end this review with one of the many different descriptions of Belladonna in this novel:

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows up to two meters high and contains atropine, still used today to dilate the pupils, while in the Renaissance women would drop the atropine into their eyes to make them shine. And so those idle Renaissance ladies, squeezed into their corsets, in their silk, brocade, velvet and cotton dresses walk around with dilated pupils, disoriented, half-blind, winking without knowing at whom and smiling foolishly into space. Their eyes appear dark and deep, but are in fact empty and colorless. They were beautiful women, le belle donne, blinded fools.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.