When I first e-mailed George Saunders in September to see if he’d be willing to chat about his not-yet published first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, his response was surprisingly prompt (within a day) and incredibly generous (yes, he’d be happy to). The promptness was surprising for one of the most successful—and most celebrated—writers of American fiction. His four collections of formally adventurous serio-comic short stories, including 2013’s Tenth of December, have won Saunders a passionate following (no literary writer attracts a more devoted, fanboyish following than Saunders), a MacArthur, and a Guggenheim. He’s almost certainly the only short story writer to be named by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. If the promptness of Saunders’s response was unexpected, his generosity was not. Over the years he has developed a reputation for warmth to his fellow writers, dedication to his students (he teaches creative writing at Syracuse), and humanity, even love, towards his screwed-up, deeply pained characters.
We didn’t actually get to talk in earnest until December. A lot happened in the interim. On the existentially terrifying end of the scale, Donald Trump was elected president. On the existentially reassuring end of the scale, Lincoln in the Bardo was published. (And Saunders’s brilliant, complicated essay on the Trump phenomenon, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”, was nominated for a National Magazine Award.) Lincoln in the Bardo takes as its premise a situation that Saunders readers will find reassuring in its weirdness. It’s 1862. Willie Lincoln, the president’s young son, has just died, and his ghost currently lingers in a Washington graveyard, along with a host of other spectral figures (a gay man who committed suicide, a former reverend, and many, many others). The novel is set in the bardo—the Buddhist in-between state where souls wait before their next incarnation. (Saunders, a former Catholic and current practicing Buddhist, has admitted that he plays fast and loose with Buddhist theology here.) The novel is devastating, especially on the several occasions when the president comes to visit and hold his son’s body, and it’s also exuberantly comic. Saunders may be trying a different genre, but this formal shift has only reconfigured and amplified the tonal and thematic elements that make Saunders so great.
Anthony Domestico: In July 2016, you wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which you tried to understand the Trump phenomenon in all its complexity: the candidate’s fear-mongering and nastiness, his supporters’ constant anger and occasional civility. You ended with this thought: “I thank [Trump] for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” What’s your sense of the strength or fragility of the American experiment at this moment, five months and a startling election later?
George Saunders: Well, I think we’re at a critical turning point. In the best case, we’ll have to endure four years of a very strange right-leaning and billionaire-infested administration that will be working from what I think is a discredited conservative view of the world: rigid, ungenerous, incurious, harsh, Other-averse. In the worst case… well, I don’t want to think about that. What concerns me most is the horrible degradation our notions of truth, civility, and decency have undergone. Also the way that language has been malformed—we have been overcome with banality and the cynical misuse of language. When a candidate runs a campaign on a series of dog-whistles to bigots, then turns around and talks about “healing the wounds of division,” that is right out of Orwell. On the other hand (he says, trying to brighten things up a bit), this might be the beginning of a new movement in American politics, that turns away from the familiar and reductive right vs. left discourse in which we’ve been trained by the corporate media, and back to questions which are now more than ever wide open: What does it mean to be an American? In what do we truly believe? Is there a way to re-establish a common national premise? Is America “about” something (love, inclusion, growth) other than material gain?
AD: All the way back in The Braindead Megaphone (2007), you described “our national discourse” as “degraded” and “dumbed-down.” How to combat this, you asked? By “small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.” Do you still think this is right? Another way of putting it: does this moment call for a more direct political engagement by our writers? Or is the writing of good, truthful prose and poetry itself enough of a political act?
GS: Yes to all of that, only louder now, with more confidence and swagger. Writing and reading and speaking with specificity and skill has never seemed more important to me than it does at this moment. It’s what’s between us and chaos.
When I first shared that piece with David Foster Wallace, he liked it but said he thought the ending was a bit anticlimactic—too small a solution for too big a problem. And I agreed with him then and agree with him now. I don’t think that solution sufficient, but I do think it necessary—a requisite first step in all that we do. We have to move toward specificity, intelligence, facts, proof, and mutual affection. What I think people have to do now is be very, very assertive about the utter essentiality of intellectual undertakings. This—where we are now—is where a culture gets to, when it has chosen, for many years, banality over intelligence, the literal over the immaterial or complex, materialism over spirituality. This is the result of many years of disrespecting the intellectual project—of a collective acceptance of the idea that thinking and reasoning and reading deeply in difficult text and being respectful of history are somehow “wimpy” or secondary. I think it is time for a new pride in the intellectual life, and a new impatience with people who take pride in ignorance, or somehow use “elite” to mean “person who has taken the time to know” and then are eager to dismiss, say, striving, or the notion that improving one’s self out of difficult conditions is a noble thing.