You know the drill. You read a terrific review of a book. You go to the bookstore, pick it up, read the blurbs and a page or two and think, no, not for me. Then you read more raves. The book wins a major prize. You pick it up again, same thing, walk away.
That’s how it was for me with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Autumn by Ali Smith. When I finally got over myself and decided to dive in—actually it was my book club that forced me into Bardo—I realized once again that every once in a while it makes sense to listen to people smarter than me.
There’s not much I can add to what you, as book people, undoubtedly already know about the Saunders book. It takes place over 24 hours on the day the President’s beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, dies. And yes, it’s the unconventional narrative you’d expect from Saunders, which is probably what threw me off initially. The chorus of ghostly voices from the cemetery … ick, I hate that kind of thing.
What a jerk I am. This book says more about grief and father love (not to mention the Civil War and slavery) than anything I’ve read before. And about how we all yearn for meaning and connection. And, somehow, in the midst of all this heavy stuff, there’s humor! I can’t say much more because I’m already breaking a book club rule by “discussing” the book before we meet—forgive me, my friends.
I will wrap up my Bardo report on a name-droppy note. I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with George Saunders back when I was an important person. Over my many years as a producer, I met more big famous authors than I can remember; harsh though it may be, it’s my opinion that it’s a good thing some of them sit in a room by themselves and write—they simply aren’t “people people.” George Saunders is a shining exception. Intelligent, of course. But also funny and kind and generous—memorable in the very best way. Kind of like Tobias Wolf. (Trivia note: Saunders bought Tobias Wolf’s house in Syracuse when Wolf left for Stanford and they’re pals.) You’d die to take a class from him. Do yourself a favor and don’t put it off any longer—read this book.
As for Ali Smith’s Autumn, it’s hailed as one of the first post-Brexit books. And it does a beautiful job of capturing the mood of the country at a time when half the population isn’t speaking to the other half. You don’t have to be living in England to relate to the fatigue about the general state of affairs in the developed world expressed by the protagonist’s mother, a feisty, fascinating character in her own right:
I’m tired of the news, I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purposed. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being fearful.
At the center of this book is the long friendship between thirty-two-year-old Elisabeth, an ultra-perceptive under-employed university lecturer and Daniel, now a centenarian, who’s in a pre-death state of semi-consciousness, living mostly in dream and memory. Daniel lived next door to Elisabeth and her single mother when Elisabeth was little and often served as her baby-sitter. They both love books and nature and art and engage in long delightfully digressive conversation.
The opening sequence, where Elisabeth struggles with the absurd bureaucracy of the Post Office, is priceless. When Elisabeth speculates about how their encounter would play out if it were a drama on TV, the official replies, “This isn’t fiction. This is the Post Office.”
There’s a section on Pauline Body, a not-well-enough remembered ’60s Pop artist whom Daniel once loved and who died tragically young. I’m not quite sure how if fits into the novel … maybe something about the nature of her collages and early unconventional feminism … but it’s so vivid and so well told I don’t really care.
Smith’s writing is gorgeous. My book is full of dog-ears and underlines. Here’s a tidbit on October: “It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the fading themselves away, the beads of condensation on the webstrings hung between things.”
Autumn is a book that succeeds brilliantly at the near-impossible task of describing how it feels to be living in the world today. It’s the first of a quartet, the next three to have the names of the remaining seasons. I can’t wait.