It’s easy to make excuses not to do it, you wonder halfway through why you’re doing this to yourself, but then you feel great for the rest of the day
I did something I haven’t done in a while. I read an extreme academic heavyweight, To the Lighthouse. I bought it eleven years ago for 2€30 in a used bookshop in Angers, France, and it’s been following me, unread, from apartment to apartment, through degree after degree, through breaking up, getting back together, and getting married — the beautiful smooth blue pebbles on its cover a soft presence in the back of my life. Driven by the English major’s vague guilt at not having read all of the Canon, the recommendation of a friend, and the glowing praise of the greatest living American writer, I finally tackled it.
It is the story of the Ramsay family, their hangers-on, and the time they spend at a beach house on the Isle of Skye. Each page was a struggle. This is the kind of book for which critical praise exists — if I hadn’t taken it on faith that this book was great, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past p. 50. Each sentence is so incredibly dense, sometimes German in its refusal to resolve until the final word. Very little happens. There are heaping piles of interiority. But it’s so good. The language is perfect and sure. Woolf’s understanding of the inner processes and concerns of her characters is powerful. The flow from perspective to perspective is effortless, a smooth stone skipping across a clear stream.
Mrs. Ramsay is the dominating voice of the first section of the book, and Woolf’s expert use of stream-of-consciousness means I know Mrs. Ramsay better than I know many of my actual friends. Nearly everything in the book is stream-of-consciousness, happening in the moment, inside this or that character’s head. One example is from the onset of night, when Mrs. Ramsay is finally freed from all the emotional work of being the matriarch, the social center of the entire extended household:
For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.
Woolf had so little space (225 pages), and for many characters could only give slivers, but the artistry of it is that those slivers were everything — I barely read anything about James and Cam (youngest son and daughter of the Ramsay clan) but have such a powerful understanding of who they are because the small pieces of them I was given were so perfectly selected as to sketch an entire human being.
BIG spoiler coming up, but I mean, there’s barely any plot, so
And Mrs. Ramsay — oh Mrs. Ramsay. Kind matriarch, wants the best for everyone. When she dies, it is sudden and unexplained. The way the book treats her death closely mirrors actual familial loss. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, will, and body fill the first section of the book. In the last section, she’s just gone. Absent, with her friends and family wandering around trying to see the shape of their lives now that she’s not in it. The vacuum left by her loss pulls at everything that happens for the rest of the book. Lily Briscoe, a family friend, stands on the lawn of the beach house and thinks of Mrs. Ramsay:
To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! … [s]uddenly, the empty drawing-room steps … the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.
That is what grief is. To want and want and not to have. The physical hollowness of loss. All the pieces of your life swirling around a center that is no longer there. My mom died last summer, and this is how I felt. This is how I will always feel. And Virginia Woolf is good enough to capture this piece of universal human psychology in a century-old book.
I am a huge partisan of action, of Things Happening in Books. Literature was invented for story-telling, not to impress your graduate advisor, and when authors forget that, the result is the most boring book ever written. However, when a practitioner of interiority literature is as impressive as Woolf, when her insight pierces to the center of all human thought and action, the absence of a car chase or two barely matters. The things that happen in our skulls are events, after all, and an author capable of accurately capturing what makes us us is a gift.
My mother loved the Queen of Crime Fiction, and for good reason, it turns out
Agatha Christie has been outsold by two people: Shakespeare and God. The only books to outsell hers are Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible. Despite that popularity, I was not impressed by my first foray into her works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I was even less impressed by The A.B.C. Murders. While the first was enjoyable, and played with the conventions of mystery novels in one very particular and striking way, it didn’t grab me. The second I found gimmicky and empty. I rather agreed with Raymond Chandler, who characterized what happens in English detective stories as “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.” As happens so often, actual knowledge of something is all that’s necessary to kill disdain for it. I crossed that barrier with The Murder at the Vicarage, the book I buried with my mother.
My mother loved reading. It was her defining hobby, and she loved Agatha Christie especially, having read every book she wrote. So, in the surreal logic of grief, I decided to put one copy of Christie’s work in the ground with her, so she’d have something to do. The copy was The Murder at the Vicarage, for the simple reason that it was one of the first to come to hand when I reached into her massive Agatha Christie cupboard. Once I was home after the back and forth and tumult of the funeral, I turned all my energy to consuming that book as fast as possible. If it was worth burying with my mom, surely it was worth reading, right? I read it on my phone while waiting in line, listened to it in my car while commuting, and spent a lot of time reading it normally at night. It was my last goodbye, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. The result was going at breakneck speed through the work of a master craftswoman. She’s pretty amazing, y’all.
So, what is TheMurder at the Vicarage actually about?
The Murderat the Vicarage is narrated by a village vicar, Leonard Clement. He’s married to a much younger wife, Griselda Clement. After a few introductory pages, a man that everyone in the village despises to varying levels, Colonel Protheroe, is found shot through the head in the vicar’s study. The book after that point introduces many characters, all who had a reason to dislike the insufferable Colonel, and explores various scenarios under which they could have killed the victim. The only person who can see through all the chaff of misdirection is Miss Marple, in her first outing as one of Christie’s best-loved sleuths. Maybe she’s the reason why this ended up being the book I chose from among the handful I pulled off my mother’s bookshelf — the detective is an old lady of hidden depths and impressive intelligence (hi my mom was like, smart as hell).
Why Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are so good
Agatha Christie is escapist literature, definitely, so long as the people using that term aren’t dull enough to think it’s shorthand for less-than or non-literary. She’s one of the most impressive craftsmen I’ve ever read. She builds plots like the Swiss build clocks — everything is tiny, seemingly insignificant, but it all fits together in clear and important ways once the work is done. Through and around all the logic puzzles and plot twists, there is strong, clear writing and an impressively deep understanding of human nature.
For people who are addicted to Agatha Christie, a good portion of the fun is figuring out whodunnit. I’m abysmal at this — I had not the least suspicion of the actual evildoers at any point throughout any of the three Christie books I’ve read. Dad tells me that mom got to where she could get it right about half the time. The thing that seems almost unfair, paradoxically, is that Dame Christie gives you everything you need to know exactly who murdered whom. The mystery is built perfectly — the answer is hidden, but each detail on each page of the story fits seamlessly with all others to point to only one conclusion — if you’ve got the skill to slot them together in the right order. I do not. In this particular book, the narrator runs across the killer carrying a rock. This is damning evidence, but neither the narrator nor I has any idea. Generally, you’re not smart enough to figure it out, but there’s a lot of pleasure in the examination of every little occurrence and the formation of your (in my case) inevitably wrong theory. This exercise completely occupies the mind, and pulls your brain more fully into the book than with other escapist literature. It’s half small-town dialogue and half LSAT logic puzzle.
The sheer strength and clarity of writing is a joy to read. It’s the style of writing that many of the best use, where you don’t even realize how powerfully that style is building a world around you, putting you exactly where it wants you. The powerful can make you do or feel what they want, but the truly powerful make you do it without even realizing it. It’s so strong it doesn’t need to be showy. Just an example, without further commentary:
“You see,” she began at last, “living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby. There is, of course, woolwork, and Guides, and Welfare, and sketching, but my hobby is–and always has been–Human Nature. So varied–and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.”
This is the source of Miss Marple’s power. Sure, her template is just that of the nosy old neighbor, but add to that her keen intelligence and singular understanding of human nature, and she’s a dangerous adversary. There’s something so delicious in an unassuming old lady, ignored by most and feared by none, having the perspicacity to pierce through to the truth and undo all the careful plotting of the murderer.
Another of Miss Marple’s quotes, savage to the extreme, was on the subject of her modern novelist nephew:
“His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people leading lives of surpassing dullness.”
Unassuming old lady, able to tear the heart out of anyone who doesn’t impress her. I also particularly love this quote because it’s so true. I love modern fiction on the level of Midnight’s Children or Infinite Jest, but so much gets a pass as serious literature simply because it’s boring and miserable, which must mean it is Important. The 100 pages of Franzen’s The Corrections to which I had the fortitude to subject myself is some of the worst “literature” I’ve ever read. Unpleasant people and lives of surpassing dullness, indeed.
Agatha Christie, my mother, and me
Agatha Christie gives you plenty to chew on in this novel. The frantic fitting together of every little detail as you read, hoping to prove to yourself that you’re smart enough to figure it out before the big reveal. The satisfaction of the big reveal itself, as the intricate structure of everything she’s built up to that point becomes apparent. The deep understanding of people, what they want, and how they act. Christie pulling all this out of a small village in the middle of a quiet old English county is perhaps the most impressive thing she does. It reflects actual life so well — no matter how little is happening, no matter how boring something appears to be, there is always depth to it, like a drop of water under a microscope shows an entire unimagined world, teeming with microbes.
It helped me grieve for my mother because while I was reading it, she was right there with me. I’m so much like her that she won’t be gone until I stop breathing, and it’s comforting to be reminded of that. After I type these last words, I’ll stumble off to the kitchen, make myself salmon with shishito peppers, and watch The Defenders, continuing to lead a motherless life. While I’m writing this, and while reading TheMurder at the Vicarage, I’m not motherless. Reading and writing are so much of my inheritance from her that doing those things brings her back. She’s with me, not in a mystical sense, but because she built who I am.
Anyway, TheMurder at the Vicarage is a good book, and you should probably read it.
George Saunders’ recent Lincoln in the Bardo is the most interesting thing I’ll read all year. Saunders’ career is built on finding the small, the unlovable people of the world and constructing a story around them purpose-built to carve a them-sized cavity in your heart, to demonstrate forcefully why they, yes, even they, are deserving of love, or at least pity. His writing is very Sermon-on-the-Mount, and encourages us to have empathy for the unfortunate and understanding for the contemptible. Saunders’ career is also built on short stories, and it’s exciting to get a novel out of him. As you might expect from someone who started his career as a geophysical engineer, it strays far from novelistic conventions. So what exactly is it?
In my outline for this part, the first bullet point was “Hoo boy.” Where even to start? I guess with an explanation of what “Lincoln,” “in” and “the Bardo” mean. The bardo is a state of spiritual transition in Tibetan Buddhism. After death, those freshly severed from their bodies linger in a liminal state, awaiting the start of their next life. The one and only setting of the book is Oak Hill Cemetery, where young Willie Lincoln lingers, awaiting his father. He died young from a fever just as the Civil War was really ramping up. The book also features the leader of the sundered Union, Abraham himself, who repeatedly visits his boy’s corpse, unable to move on, just like his recently deceased son.
Willie is not alone in the bardo. Oak Hill Cemetery is filled with the archetypes of all the feckless people Saunders tends to write about. In fact, the book is mostly about them. There’s the old man who married a young bride, but died just before consummation. There’s the gay man who slit his wrists and, just as the percussion of blood on porcelain hit his ears, changed his mind. There’s the drunken misfit couple, who passed out in the road and were run over by the same carriage. In the finest traditions of human cognitive dissonance, they are constitutionally incapable of realizing they are dead. They believe they’re simply resting, like the Norwegian Blue (beautiful plumage, innit?). One ghost, obliviously describing his death, says:
There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor…[t]hen the physician returned, and his assistants carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that — I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed.
Beautiful piece of dramatic irony, as it’s entirely clear what that sick-box is, what that physician is doing, and where that sick-cart is going. The bardo/cemetery plane is semi-sentient, and takes a dim view of lingerers. It’s not outright malevolent, but it is definitely the extreme opposite of amenable to these people. Its job is to attack, to weaken, and to entice. Its methods of enticement are varied, bizarre, and vivid, and I’ll leave it entirely to you to find out what they are by reading the book.
Saunders’ background and his expertise are short stories — perfect capsules of narrative that achieve quickly and efficiently what they’re built to do. Saunders doesn’t so much write a novel here as use his absolute mastery of the short story form to compose fragmentary, ultra-short narratives then fit them back together in a way that works. Saunders is like a self-taught glassblower who never learned how to build a vase in the standard way, in a single piece. He instead starts with 160 colorful shards of glass and fits them together in a way that not only holds water, but is strikingly beautiful and original. That’s how many separate voices are in this book, by the way. Saunders writes 160 different people in a 367 page book. Some are only there for a page or paragraph, some recur, but they are all there and all distinct.
The distinctness of each voice is a triumph. Saunders’ authorial voice disappears completely into each character. He peeks out here and there, certainly, but for the most part, these impressively distinct characters arise from their impressively distinct language. Some examples:
A Union army captain, first coming to the bardo:
Wife of my heart laura laura
I take up my pen in a state of such great exhaustion that only my deep love for all of you could so compel me after a day of such Unholy slaughter and fear. And must tel you frankly that Tom Gilman did not make it through that terrible fite. Our position being located in a copse. Much firing during which I heard a cry. Tom is hit & fallen. Our Brave & Noble frend laying upon his Face upon the Ground. I directed the Boys that we would avenge even if it meant stepping through the very gates of Hell.
captain william prince
One of the more permanent inhabitants, judging the preceding captain for realizing where he is and leaving:
My goodness, I thought, poor fellow! You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world.
And for what?
You do not know.
A most unintelligent wager.
roger bevins iii
A ghost regretting his choices:
I give her dimonds and perls and broke the harts of wife and children and sell the house from under us to buy more dimonds and perls but she thows me over for mr hollyfen with his big yellow laughing horseteeth and huge preceding paunch?
robert g. twistings
Someone who doesn’t know how to talk without inflating each and every word:
I did always try, in all my aspects, to hew to elevation; to dispense therewith, into myself, those higher virtues of which, rendered without, one verily may sag, and, dwelling there in one’s misfortune, what avails.
A good reverend, trying to convince Willie Lincoln to leave:
What do you think? I said to the boy. Is this a good place? A healthy place? Do these people seem sane to you, and worthy of emulation?
the reverend everly thomas
Five different mini-narratives present five completely different voices, and Saunders does this 160 times. The constantly swirling perspectives, shifting not just in subject, and not just superficially in style, but presenting a new world with every speaker, is the center of what makes this book work.
Saunders expertly places each shard of narrative, expanding here, shortening there, revisiting, interweaving, and building a miraculous whole. Out of the chaos of each ghost’s small, painful grievance he constructs a cohesive picture of the shared experience of humanity.
Saunders also pulls off this maneuver with quotations from history. There are alternate chapters composed entirely of historical quotations, with Saunders mixing and matching dozens of sources and making them serve the narrative. One of the bardo chapters ends with the ghosts seeing Abraham Lincoln’s face, and the next chapter consists entirely of historical sources describing Lincoln:
The pictures we see of him only half represent him. — Shenk, op. cit., account of Orlando B. Ficklin.
In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying. — Carpenter, op. cit.
But when he smiled or laughed… — Ostendorf, op. cit., account of James Miner.
It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated. — In “Lincoln the Man,” by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist.
The impressive thing here isn’t so much Saunders’ ability to quote extensively and fluently from historical sources, but how he can join them together seamlessly to serve his purpose. Without the citations breaking them up, these four disparate quotations flow almost exactly as a fictional paragraph, and Saunders pulls this trick repeatedly. There’s a caveat though: some of these historical citations (not anywhere near the majority, just here and there) are made from whole cloth. In some cases they read with the cadence of fiction because they are. Also, this guy is so good at style that it took me half the book to notice the counterfeit.
The story arc is the movement from anxiety and fixation to enlightenment and acceptance for both the living and the dead. Lincoln needs to come to terms with his grief, leave his boy in his “sick-box,” and go lead a nation at war. Each ghost needs to come to terms with its own death and go on to its next life. For Lincoln, the fixation is the overwhelming, intolerable depth of loss. For each of the other 159 characters in the book, the fixations vary, but what is common is that it forces out all other aspects of their personality. The boneyard is filled with anxiety-ridden neurotics whose fixations influence their physical appearance. The man who committed suicide and deeply regrets removing himself from the sensory feast of life walks around with multiple hands, noses, eyes, etc., sprouting more and more whenever he gets excited; the man who was denied connubial bliss walks around naked with a member swollen to the size of, well, I gather it’s impressive, but you can never really tell as the only people who talk about it are rather repressed 19th century Americans. Let’s just say it appears to impede locomotion.
They are trapped physically (ectoplasmically?) and spiritually by these fixations, and only by making peace with them and opening themselves up to the wider experience of the universe can they move on. When they accept their own death, they pop out of existence with “the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon,” a phenomenon which terrifies those left behind. Simultaneously, Lincoln can only move on to become one of the greatest leaders of history by dealing with his loss. The living and the dead in this book must learn acceptance.
George Saunders has described literature as a “compassion-generating machine,” and he’s built a compassion-generating nuclear reactor here. As each character progresses from misery to acceptance, as their major failings are detailed, the author understands them so deeply that, at the end of their journey, admirable or cruel, enlightened or still trapped, you can’t help but love them, and by extension, love the entire human race. Saunders taps into the powerful national narrative of Lincoln-the-leader, explores his deep struggle with his son’s death, and uses that strong current to help turn the emotional millwheels for an extensive cast of screw-ups, each mini-narrative joined perfectly to the others, mutually supporting and building upon themselves and upon historical snippets, in the clear, inventive style of a master. Lincoln in the Bardo‘s clarity, weirdness, and emotional depth combine flawlessly to make it the best book of the year. Calling it now.