George Saunders shares his thoughts on writing his first full-length novel, the forthcoming Lincoln in the Bardo. As he puts it, “It’s like when you’re writing your first book, and you’re trying to figure out what kind of writer you are. This was like that.” Pair with our own Elizabeth Minkel’s piece on Saunders and the question of literary greatness.
Risk becomes a dirty word to many genre writers once they develop a rabid fan base. As long as the cash registers keep ringing and the fans are happy, why take chances? Indeed, the most rabid fans tend to insist that their favorite writers not only stick to their chosen genre but produce the same book over and over again. That's why we keep getting robotic, risk-averse re-writers like the late Robert B. Parker. Given all that, China Mieville is to be loudly applauded for his new novel, Embassytown. For starters, it's a work of pure science fiction, which is to say it's a departure from his seven previous fantasy novels, books of ravishing imagination that have won him a cult following and critical praise, including a career retrospective here last year. Instead of doing the safe thing and revisiting his imaginary world of Bas-Lag or his reconfigured city of London, Mieville now takes us to his titular "city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe." Embassytown's human inhabitants live under a breathable dome, surrounded by a city full of indigenous Hosts, or Ariekei, winged, chitinous creatures with antlers of eyes. The Hosts speak Language. The only humans capable of understanding and speaking Language are the Ambassadors, highly trained twins, or doppels, with linked minds who are capable of making paired sounds simultaneously. The Hosts, who are incapable of lying, bridle against their innate literalness; that is, they yearn to be able to lie. Their yearning is summed up in the novel's epigraph from Walter Benjamin: "The word must communicate something (other than itself)." A girl named Avice is recruited to become a simile. She's taken to an abandoned restaurant, where a group of Hosts perform a mysterious ritual that enables them to call her a girl who ate what was given her. This gives Avice exalted status, and she grows up to become an immerser, a sort of intergalactic merchant marine who surfs the far reaches of space. "The immer was and is full of renegades and refugees," she reports after returning to Embassytown. "I had transported many things to most places; jewellery; immer-immersible livestock; payloads of organic garbage to a trash planet-state run by pirates." The Hosts and humans co-exist in an uneasy peace that is disrupted when a new Ambassador named EzRa arrives in Embassytown. When EzRa speaks Language, the Hosts become addicted, which will lead to a siege of Embassytown, and eventually to total war between humans and Hosts. Mieville's phantasmagorical imagination is alive and well. Architecture in the city is organic, changing shapes, producing antibodies; purses grow on bio-rigged trees; there are flying machines called "corvids," and computers in segmented bodies called "automs." There are many verbal delights, sentences like this one after Avice meets her future husband: "We were in a bad hotel on the outskirts of Pellucias, a small city popular with tourists because of the gorgeous magmafalls it straddles." The novel, for all its inventiveness and linguistic verve, is not flawless. In the early chapters we can see Mieville straining to lay the building blocks of Embassytown, the surrounding city and the farmland that brushes against a "gently toxic sea." It's obvious he's feeling his way, sometimes groping. The book is one-third gone before the gears of the story mesh. The wait is too long, and nearly disastrous. But Mieville salvages the novel by giving us a rich story that is, first and last, about language – its power to bring humans and aliens together, and its power, when misused, to turn them into mortal enemies. Once EzRa begins to work his dark magic with Language, the novel takes off, moving smartly to a climax that is built not around a rote battle scene, but on the healing power of a new language. It's a bewitching performance by a writer who deserves praise for daring to do something rare among writers of his stature: He's willing to walk the high wire without a net.
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To read one of George Saunders' stories is to gain a glimpse into an antic, often frightening, just-slightly-shifted alternative world. To read a George Saunders collection is to discover the human sorrow his stories plumb. Reading Pastoralia was something of a revelation for me because, though I've read many of Saunders' stories before, I had never dug into one of his collections and had not appreciated the full force of reading several of his stories back to back. As an aside, this would be an argument in favor of short story collections, which, well constructed and edited, should bring on a "greater than the sum of its parts" reaction in the reader.In the case of Pastoralia, Saunders' characters are, as ever, pathetic, trapped in soul-sucking existences, with demeaning jobs and dysfunctional relationships. What elevates Saunders' stories from what might be depressing muck is his eye for detail and his dry (almost deranged) wit. In the long title story that opens the collection, we peek in on the world of a caveman impersonator. Imagine if the life size caveman diorama at your local natural history museum were populated by actors, and you get the idea. That sounds bad enough, but Saunders overlays the world of corporate bureaucracy and buzzword double-speak onto this "edutainment" scenario. The "actors" are as much prisoners as they are employees.But this is not 1984 or The Matrix. Saunders' characters do not conform to the typical occupants of dystopias - millions of buzzing drones and a handful of "enlightened" struggling against the status quo. He offers characters, who are, well, like us.In the story "Pastoralia," we have a guy with a mind-numbing job (fake caveman), not enough money, a sick kid at home, coworkers that range from annoying to malicious, and a company in the throes of an "employee remixing." This sounds more like someone who spends his days stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or temping at a cubicle farm than the gray and black Big Brother, robot-controlled nightmare of the future that has always been offered as civilization's worst case scenario.And this is what is so subversive about Saunders. He essentially is telling us that we are living in that worst case scenario, in the dystopia that we have been taught to fear and fight against. But he does so with such humor and well crafted detail that there is none of the didacticism that one my might expect from such a point of view. Saunders is no raving Luddite, instead he has the ability to highlight the absurd minutia of modern life that we typically ignore or take for granted: the "Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form," the "fax makes the sound it makes when a fax is coming in," "Stars-n-Flags... They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets," "Cute Ratings," "Credit Calcs," and "Personal Change Centers."If our dystopia hasn't already arrived, then we are perilously close to it. And whether or not you choose to look for these parallels, consumed without prejudice, Saunders' stories are well crafted and utterly readable. I found myself careening through, hungry for the next off-kilter detail and scenario. I finished the book thinking that Saunders is a worthy chronicler of modern life.
"The female writers whose work has most recently come in for enthusiastic appraisal are by no means a homogeneous group; their influences, preoccupations and style vary wildly." The Guardian profiles six women authors – Beryl Bainbridge, Anita Brookner, Angela Carter, Jenny Diski, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Molly Keane – whose posthumous legacies continue to grow. Alix Hawley wrote a fantastic tribute to Brookner here earlier this year, noting, "[n]obody does depression quite so elegantly."
No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, "Homer's Ithaca 'lies low,' but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus's island is 'farthest to sea towards dusk,' today's Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east." This disparity hasn't gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer's Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer's description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus' home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.