An Open Letter to George Saunders

by Angela Doll Carlson June 27, 2017

Damn it, George. I’m tired of crying today. And it’s your fault I’m crying if you must know.

I picked up Lincoln in the Bardo because I loved your short story collection, Tenth of December. Whether it was the dark commentary on human nature, the rich language or the well-crafted storylines, your words made needlepoint on my sleeves and my hands and my feet. I walk one step into anything you write and see the stitches left behind. When I reached the end of Tenth of December, I was a walking story-built tapestry, this one written on my ankle, this one I wear like a patch on my knee.

But your first novel caught me unawares. The structure was a mysterious mix of timing and characters, first-hand accounts of historical events, and free-floating dialogue. I kept waiting for things to even out, like sitting through a turbulent patch on a long flight overseas. I waited for some equilibrium to kick in, from the pace or the language– but even five, ten, fifteen pages in, it didn’t come.

Once, a long time ago, I read that if an author didn’t snag the reader within the first few pages, he would not keep them, as though we are fish circling a boat, waiting to be caught. Maybe I am like this. Historically, I have put down books that don’t hook me in the first few pages. I toss it aside thinking that life is too short to finish a book that doesn’t want me enough to cop to my reader-ly needs? I need smart pacing. I need a character I can embrace with both hands. I need emotion and description. I find, too often, I swim away too soon and never look back. That’s my hang up. I recognize this as I struggle through the first few pages of your novel and I persevere. I trust you, George.

So, I looked down at the needlework on my sleeves, the brilliant stitched patches I wear on my knees courtesy of the words you’ve written in the past and I ask myself after the first five, ten, fifteen pages, “Can I ride this out? Can I find the threads here?” And I do it. I do it for you, because of the time we spent together through the stories in the Tenth of December. And I hang in there because you were very convincing in that Time Magazine interview when you described your process, and because when Stephen Colbert asked you about being kind to Donald Trump you reminded me that empathy is a super power, something I needed desperately to hear at that moment.

I had some warning that you were going to break my heart with this story about Lincoln visiting his young son’s grave the day he was buried. I knew the novel was based on a story that Lincoln took his son’s body out of the coffin in the mausoleum and held him and I was already crying knowing that. I could understand this. I can imagine the desire to hold a child who has departed too soon– to keep him, to bring him back, to say goodbye? Something, anything.

And I hung in there for the something, anything. I found the rhythm, the people, the story, the emotion when I put down the weight I carried into the book and let the structure have its way. The multitude of characters, the historical accounts part truth, part fiction, the sometimes slow-moving backstory, I pieced it together like a tapestry woven one thread at a time. Then I cried through the whole thing because it caught me.

Or maybe I am not a fish being caught, and you are not a crafty writer-fisherman. Maybe it is that while you fed a line out from your boat, I was a swimmer drowning. You were throwing a lifeline. I put hands on the line, let my face break the surface of the choppy waters. I was pulled up, slowly but surely, into the boat, cold air rushing around me. I had almost forgotten about breathing because I’d been underwater for so long.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a story I needed to read. I had to work at it, work through it, cry through it. I thought, at first, it is because the story at the most basic level is about loss and in particular, the loss of a child. Who can read that without feeling some far distant echoing loss? It’s more than that. I think the tears come because in this narrative we are confronted with the deeper ideas of loss– mine, yours, anyone’s. Who are we in life? Who are we in death? Is it ever too late to change, let go of the weight we carry and be kind, selfless, willing to do well for others when we don’t stand to gain anything at all? I’m reminded, then, empathy is a super power after all.

Thank you for the book, though I cursed you every page that took me deeper.

Damn it, George, I’m tired of crying.




Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson

Author

Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”



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