James Ley’s attitude in his review of George Saunders’ recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo is… well… I’m not quite sure what. Let’s say it’s in the region of prickly/irascible/dyspeptic but without any trace of genuine displeasure or hysteria:
Saunders is a formally adventurous writer; he has his characteristic quirks and obsessions, his own distinctive style. But his work sits quite comfortably within a well-established tradition of postmodern American fiction. In fact, it is hard to think of another contemporary author of comparable renown whose aesthetic is so obviously stitched together from other writers’ old fabric scraps. His fiction is a patchwork of Donald Barthelme’s conceptual whimsy, Thomas Pynchon’s zany cultural satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom, interwoven with an anxious humanism and a demotic turn of phrase that takes a perverse delight in malapropisms, solecisms, absurd jargon and ridiculous brand names — qualities that are more or less direct cops from David Foster Wallace.
And later, building off Zadie Smith’s praise for Saunders as “a morally passionate, serious writer,” Ley adds:
Maybe I am the only person to detect something a little Gertrudian about this observation, but it sounds to my ears rather like an indirect expression of concern that there is at least a faint possibility that someone, somewhere could mistake Saunders for a morally indifferent, frivolous writer. Would anyone bother pointing out that, say, George Eliot or Franz Kafka or Jenny Erpenbeck are ‘serious’ writers?
The implied anxiety is of interest, I think, not because it suggests that a writer who works primarily in a comic mode cannot also have a serious purpose (a proposition so obviously false that it hardly needs refuting), but because it suggests a buried insecurity about the moral authority of literature itself. The point not only bears upon the reception of Saunders’ work, but the form and content of his moralism. It is not a coincidence that among the most prominent champions of his fiction are a cohort of novelists of a certain vintage — Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan — all of whom are, in one way or another, haunted by the DFW-shaped hole in contemporary American literature. It has been Saunders, more than any of his peers, who has taken it upon himself to address the issue raised by Wallace in the early 1990s, in the context of a generational debate about the cultural status and purpose of serious literature — namely, whether a work of fiction might yet affirm positive human values in a chronically frivolous cultural environment that equates irony with sophistication and ingenuousness with naivety and simple-mindedness.
I’m tempted to quote further, especially to quote Ley’s judgment on the profundity of Saunders’ “seriousness and moral passion,” but that’d risk ruining the pleasure of his review in its entirety. Ultimately, I guess, it’s a takedown of Saunders, but it’s an exceptionally articulate and insightful takedown that makes ample effort to appreciate the intentions and virtues of Saunders’ work. It’s one of those rare essays that is not only more sophisticated in its own right than the subject under discussion, but that also renders its subject in more sophisticated terms than those in which the subject can render itself. It’s a doozy and it deserves your full attention.