I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, the Mann Booker Prize winner for 2017 and I’m working through Milkman by Anna Burns, the winner for 2018. Well, why not? Lincoln as a subject for anything - movies or poems or so-called novels - is a shoo-in for any available prize. He has been canonised as a latter-day saint and can do no wrong. As for Milkman, again the subject is a shoo-in. People still have long memories for the “troubles”, as they were known in Ireland, and the oblique but uncompromising style of the writer makes it hard for them to ignore. A lot of the book reads like an editorial and the author has a lot to say, hard reading so far. Haven’t finished it yet, not sure that I will. See, every once in a while I succumb to the publicity or to the special price and read a prize-winner or a best-seller and not just once in a while, lately. Remember: I just read Kate Atkinson’s and Micael Ondaatje’s latest books.I guess I like to see what the opposition is doing.
Not that I’m opposition. I’ve never published a novel. Considering what’s happening to novels these days, I find it fascinating to watch what writers think is new and how they use it.
Take cemeteries, and a lot of people have. The most famous one is in Spoon River Anthology, 1915, by Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950). It’s a novel in poetry set in a cemetery and all the people are dead, relating their past lives and relating to each other. It’s a whole graveyard full of people past and recent and varied enough to choose a cast of characters to present in live (!) action. Spoon River was produced as a musical play on Broadway in 1963. (I have the original cast recording.) Soulpepper Theatre here in Toronto presented a new version in 2017.
Peter S. Beagle, perhaps best known to movie-goers as the author of the book/movie, The Last Unicorn, wrote A Fine and Private Place, set in a cemetery, in 1960.
Then in 2010 Neill Gaiman published The Graveyard Book, winning the Newby Medal, the Ca… Medal, the Hugo Award, and a whole bunch of others.
I guess I have to mention Pet Cemetary, 1983, by Stephen King, but it’s a horror story. The protagonists use an old cemetery for misguided ends and it served them right. I just read the synopsis and I’m glad I didn’t read it. The others were charming and innovative and cheerful with a good take on life.
Saunders’ Lincoln/Bardo, on the other hand, skates on the edge of maudlin, with one-note, none of it cheerful. It’s all monologue, like Spoon River, and sources are cited for each speaker. I’m not sure whether they were all authentic or all fictional or half-and-half. There is no bibliography, so perhaps I can assume they are all fictional. Why not?