George Saunders, Paulette Jiles: excellence prevails (and what it teaches me about writing)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

This is spring break week at Penn. My students are off doing their mighty things and I miss them—their questions, their engagement, their enthusiasm, their appreciation for the fine writers they are reading and for the work their classmates present.

"What will you be doing during break?" asked Emily (one of my Emilys), as we were concluding our day with the great memoirist Paul Lisicky. (Words about what Paul taught us, and a video of his fabulous reading, here.)

"I think I might be writing," I said.

And I have. If you can call lifting, bricking, and gluing writing. I have (again) deconstructed and reconstructed a novel that has plagued and delighted me for three long years. Here is proof of how imprecise this writing process is: This particular novel began in first-person past tense, moved to an omniscient third person, was rearranged from flashback intensive to chronologically told, was written again as first person, was then written in a present-tense free indirect, and now, friends, yes: It is a first-person present-tense chronological telling. Wasted time? Not really. With every rendition, with every read, I came to know my characters more. I discovered the dark and light in their hearts.

We writers. We do persist.

But, Emily, beautiful Emily, I'm not just writing during our time apart. I'm reading. The two go hand-in-hand. I'm reading the best of the best because that's how I learn, because we teachers are always teaching ourselves. We're bowing down to those who have done what we imagine we ourselves could never do, and we ask ourselves: How did they do that?

How, for example, did George Saunders write the profound Lincoln in the Bardo? Willie Lincoln has died, President Lincoln has come to the grave to visit, and the ghosts are all astir. Can we call them ghosts? Not really. They are those who have died and who have paused on their way to the next and final stop. They watch the president arrive. They mass together, float together, skim-walk. They have regrets about the ways they lived, about the things they'll never do. They wonder whether it is fair to have been condemned to be the people that they were. Are?

Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is like sitting on a stage in a theater in the round and having the actors perform in the seats around you. Reading Lincoln is like standing in for a hologram. It's bawdy, gorgeous, kind, tender, funny. It is supremely beautiful, pressing in from all sides. It is a story that took Saunders several years to write, yet a story that feels so at ease with itself that a reader can't imagine any struggle at all. Here's a passage, a bit of Bardo conversation by the grave. These characters would like a life do-over. Wouldn't we all?
Did I murder Elmer? the woman said.

You did, said the Brit.

I did, said the woman. Was I born with just those predispositions and desires that would lead me, after my whole preceding life (during which I had killed exactly no one), to do just that thing? I was. Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was.

And here you are, said the Brit.

Here I am, quite right, she said.
Goodness, that's fine stuff. It's proof, like the work of Dana Spiotta (whose new Innocents and Others I celebrate here), that you can write way the heck out of expected forms and still land on the most humane story of all. That's not just a lesson for novelists, my friends. That's a lesson for memoirists. That's a lesson for people in general.

Now I turn to News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a National Book Award finalist, a worthy one. In a recent Guardian essay, "What Writers Really Do When They Write," Saunders wrote of the power of successive edits, the incremental discovery of a story and its heroes through the act of changing this imprecise word for that better word, for adding this found detail into a sort-of-nothing spot. Jiles, in this fabulous historical novel, offers example upon example of the right word, found:
The girl still didn't move. It takes a lot of strength to sit that still for that long. She sat upright on the bale of Army shirts which were wrapped in burlap, marked in stencil for Fort Belknap. Around her were wooden boxes of enamel washbasins and nails and smoked deer tongues packed in fat, a sewing machine in a crate, fifty-pound sacks of sugar. Her round face was flat in the light of the lamp and without shadows, or softness. She seemed carved.
I have more to share. I'm on a roll. I'll soon be reading Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow, and after that some Vivian Gornick and after that Tim Winton, and I won't be done. We can't be done. Not with this.

Reading to write. Reading to live. That's what I'm doing, dear Emily.


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