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George Saunders Thinks Empathy Can Still Save Us

The celebrated author is "doubling down" on art and empathy with his brilliant debut novel, 'Lincoln in the Bardo.'

"I think we're in the shit, for sure," George Saunders tells me over the phone. "You always want to qualify that and say, 'however…' But I think for now: We're in the shit."

It's a February afternoon in our current America, which at times seems to be tilting toward the panicked, everything-up-to-11 hyperrealism Saunders's fiction is famous for. Even though the occasion for our talk is the acclaimed author's Big-Deal Debut Novel, Lincoln in the Bardo—an inventive, antic, and poignant book destined for awards ceremonies and end-of-the-year lists—our conversation, like so many conversations, has turned to politics.

"I actually have the goal of cataloguing these Kellyanne-isms," he says, referring to chronically misspeaking Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway. "Someone says, 'Your fly is open,' and she says, 'So is yours,' or, 'Why are you always sexualizing everything?' or, you know, 'The people just want jobs.'

Saunders continues: "There are all these moves that are really incredible, and they're not exactly new, but they're kind of novel. They are degradation of language. I haven't been able to really work through this, but it seems to me that's not unrelated to our cultural mild rejection of art, especially literary art."

And yet, if there's any American writer working today who has been able to successfully bridge the high literary with the highly popular, the artful with the accessible, it's Saunders. Over the course of four story collections, an essay collection, and a children's book, his work has been as consistently energetic and entertaining as it's been hilarious and heartfelt. Now, with the breathlessly awaited Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders has presented readers with a formally adventurous, supernatural historical novel that centers on the 16th president's grief over the untimely death of his favorite son, the 11-year-old Willie.

The majority of the novel is narrated, oral-history style, by a rotating chorus of ghosts—reverend, soldier, "washerlady," large-membered printing-press operator, and numerous others—who, along with Willie, are stuck in a purgatory-like realm called the bardo. (In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the bardo is an intermediate state after death, before rebirth.) As with nearly everything Saunders writes, there's a joy in the language wholly separate from whatever absurdist plot. To this cause, Lincoln in the Bardo employs two alternating modes: archaic dialogue from the ghosts (words like "tarry" find ample occasion) and possibly fictionalized snippets from historians that are often comedic in their juxtaposition of old-timiness, inconsistency, and occasionally blunt candor:

The Presdt is an idiot. —General George McClellan, "The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan," edited by Stephen Sears.

Over the past several years, Saunders has become increasingly beloved, even though—oddly for a writer in this day and age—he hasn't published any novels. Lincoln in the Bardo is not unlike the debut album for a band wildly popular for its singles and EPs, and has been greeted with the kind of fanfare rarely lavished on a bunch of words on paper. The book has already received a glowing New York Times review from National Book Award–winner Colson Whitehead and an unprecedented multimedia rollout in the form of a VR adaptation (also in the Times) and a celebrity-heavy audiobook that includes the likes of Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Offerman, and Miranda July.

Not that the 58-year-old former geophysicist and Texas native is getting a big head about it. After all, here is a man who, after fielding eight phone interviews, has to "go chainsaw" a tree. 

"I've been a writer a long time, and I love it and I honor it," he says from his house near Santa Cruz, California, where he lives with his wife. (During the fall, he teaches creative writing at Syracuse University in New York, where he's taught for nearly 30 years.) "But I can even see in myself that at some point I said, 'Well, it's not the main form of the culture anymore,' and I think that's widespread. And so, somehow, values like being articulate, being precise, being specific get sidelined a little bit, and get overpowered by this strange hyperbolic dogma that we're in the middle of now."

This is something Saunders witnessed firsthand while reporting from Trump Tour 2016 for the New Yorker, and attending rallies for the future president in California, Arizona, and Wisconsin, where he spoke to supporters and generally tried to understand what makes them tick and why they're so damn angry. I ask, in light of the election and everything about it, whether such a thing still matters in the age of Trump—does empathy still matter like it did?

"Yeah, I've given that a lot of thought," he replies. "I'm just trying to deepen understanding of what empathy actually is. Because, in my lazy version of it, it means being groovy with everything, and liking everybody. I don't think that's quite it. For me, it seems urgent to me that we resist this crap. How do we best do that?" 

Saunders says that while covering the rallies, he noticed that whenever people on either side got "strident and emotional," the conversation shut down. "So, my thing is, if we really wanted to restore our country to what it was, or even better, to get it to what it should be, empathy is a really great tool," he explains. "It doesn't mean you're gonna agree, and I think we liberals have a tendency to think that empathy equals enabling. And I think that's actually false. That's not at all what compassion and empathy means. It's much more akin to a kind of wide-open awareness, which to me is always a powerful thing."

"The heroism in this moment is going to be humorous, really firm, and really articulate, and, I think, really empathetic, to really reach out to those Trump people that are willing to be reached out to—which, in my experience, is a lot of 'em."

At the end of the New Yorker piece, Saunders observes: "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." I ask how he feels now, six months later.

"More so," he says. "Now I think it's happening. I had a friend who used to say, 'When the fascists come, this time they won't be wearing jackboots.' There's a degradation of the basic value system that's being done with all kinds of crazy verbal shenanigans, and with the complicity of a lot of people who I think are basically good-hearted, but aren't seeing it for what it is." 

These are the basically good-hearted folks Saunders aims to engage through fictions like Lincoln in the Bardo, which he describes as "everything I wanted to say about Trump," a kind of preemptive strike, as the book was finished before Trump announced his candidacy.

I ask whether Trump's victory has, as with other artists, caused in him any doubts or soul-searching. "I felt that way after 9/11," he admits, "but I haven't felt that way after this. I've actually had the opposite feeling, that I really feel like doubling down. When you're engaged in a work of art, whether you're reading it or writing it, a certain part of your brain gets engaged that isn't normally engaged, and I would say that part of your brain is the better part, more sympathetic—all that. I think we got ourselves in this mess from neglecting what we might call the artistic part of ourselves, by allowing art to be treated as a sort of minor arts-and-crafts thing some freaky people do over here while wearing berets."

I laugh—Saunders's manner of speaking is, like his fiction, affable and entertaining, full of intuitive rhetorical devices and surprises to draw you in—and he continues. "The progressive thing right now—we gotta fucking person up. We have to be not neurotic. The heroism in this moment is going to be humorous, really firm, and really articulate, and, I think, really empathetic, to really reach out to those Trump people that are willing to be reached out to—which, in my experience, is a lot of 'em. You can do two levels of activity: You can be absolutely fierce in resisting (and you can be peaceful in resisting), and you can also do real, one-on-one human stuff. It made me sad, when I was contemplating cutting out all that empathy shit. So I think you can do both. You can do sympathy, and you can do resistance. And actually, if you think of it, those are the same thing."

"When we imagine a character, we're basically having a conversation with somebody other than ourselves."

Here, the signature Saundersian empathy kicks in. "Because one way or the other," he cautions, "however this turns out, there's still, whatever it is, 43 percent of people who would find this conversation very insulting. They would feel excluded by and condescended to. And those are our countrymen. You can't condescend that or pretend it doesn't exist. You wouldn't want to.

"And one more thing," he adds, energized. "The tools that we develop through writing, those are great tools to enable us to [empathize]. When we imagine a character, we're basically having a conversation with somebody other than ourselves. So we're trained in it, if we're fiction writers. That's what we do."

I ask whether Saunders ever sees his fiction as explicitly political, to which he pauses, and answers, "Yeah. In the highest sense." He relates the Anton Chekov story, "Grief," about a horse-drawn carriage driver whose son has just died that morning and now he has to go to work. He wants to talk to someone about what he's feeling, but nobody wants to talk to him—one guy hits him on the head—until finally, at the end of the day, he goes into the stable, drops his head against his horse's head, and lets it pour out about his son.

"Now, is that political?" Saunders asks. "Yeah, in a sense, because the Russian Revolution is coming. But, on the other hand, it certainly isn't overtly political. I try to have zero ideas about my stories at the beginning, and just trust that whatever comes in will come in honestly. If it's political, God bless it. But for me, having an agenda at the beginning almost guarantees that the thing won't work." 

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is now available in bookstores and online from Random House.