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A short primer on George Saunders: or, how to stay hip

| Staff Writer

Sure, it’s cool to be hip and up-to-date on all the latest cultural happenings, but I bet for most people, it’s just as cool to only seem hip and up-to-date.

In the literary world, the well-known short-story writer George Saunders just released a novel that has found a place on the top spot of the New York Times Best Seller list. So here’s a primer on Saunders and his newest novel, called “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

First, imagine the stereotype of the snobby writer. Think Norman Mailer: uber-masculine, unapologetic, lacking emotion, etc. Now take the opposite of that (but leave the male). That’s Saunders.

Saunders is an essentially nice man. In interviews, he extols love over hate, compassion over apathy. Whereas many writers bash love—Mailer had six wives—Saunders tells heartwarming, dad joke anecdotes. For example, this is how he summarizes the relationship with his wife while at the Syracuse University Writing Program: “We got engaged in three weeks, which I believe is still a program record.”

When I try to sum up his writing, I think back to one part from Saunders’ “Pastoralia.” In it, a father asks his son, “Do you think you have to be rich to be nice?” And the son answers, “I guess so.”

Saunders began exploring this concept in the semi-dystopian, often satirical “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” Saunders suggests a theme for his collection in a quote from critic Terry Eagleton: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” He puts well-meaning characters—usually working at evil corporate theme parks in rock-and-a-hard-place positions—and sees how they sometimes succeed and sometimes screw up, but always, at least, mean well. Think of Job, from the Bible, add in marketing lingo and science fiction gadgets and gonzo voices, and you come out with a pretty rough cut of Saunders’ works as a whole.

Since his first collection in 1996, Saunders has written three more short story collections, a novella, a short children’s book, a collection of essays and a short essay/story displayed on certain Chipotle bags. He deals with grief, violence and emotion on a grand scale in few pages. He’s a nonpretentious writer who doesn’t want to take up more of your time than he has to. “Lincoln on the Bardo” is his first stab at a novel.

Saunders’ semi-nonfictional plot seems born for his distress-laden style. It takes place on the night after Abraham Lincoln’s favorite son died in 1862, a year into the Civil War, when a surprising (at least, surprising to us) number of Americans opposed the bloodshed. Lincoln is so grief-stricken that he returns to his son’s recently entered crypt, holds the boy, then goes off and leads his country through the war.

Saunders tells this story through real historical documents, as well as a cast of fictional ghosts. The “bardo” is a kind of Tibetan-Buddhist purgatory, where souls exist before they can release themselves from worldly want. For precedent, think Moaning Myrtle and the other ghosts in Harry Potter.

Saunders generates his own conception of bardo, which is smart, because who would know exactly how the bardo works anyway? He also takes liberties with Lincoln’s character. At one point, he makes Lincoln meditate like a yogi.

On a conceptual level, the novel can seem to stumble when Saunders, late in the book, introduces previously unknown rules or requirements for the afterlife. In these moments, the bardo can feel like a device he uses to reveal his Buddhist-inspired morals.

But by the end, you really can’t blame him, or call him a sap for the sort of sentimentalist, loving philosophy that pervades so much of his work. He writes sentences like: “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow…that all were suffering…and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.” He doesn’t try to be the most metaphoric or clever writer, but he does have a wonderful sense of not being jaded, of believing in his characters and the world.

Saunders’ humor and drama, though sometimes seemingly fabricated or unreal, certainly keep you reading. You’ll leave “Lincoln in the Bardo” with a few moments that stand out as really strong, literary, moral and unforgettable. Saunders’ books seem to embody a line from his early story “Isabella” which reads, “The sum total of sadness in the world is less than it would have been.”

Reading George Saunders is kind of like rewatching a good children’s TV show: Though your college-brain says it’s too straightforward or explicitly moral, your heart says it’s good, fun and sometimes necessary.