(Note: This blog is the first in which I'm trying out a new format. It ran longer than expected. I'll continue to play with this to figure out what works best.)
For me personally…
I see a lot of similarities here between what Saunders is doing and what my WIP novel does. Which is unfortunate for me, I think, because this isn’t a “comp.” (Comp: A comparative title to give agents and editors and, eventually, readers an idea of what to expect. Next time you read a book blurb, notice how often you see something like, “For fans of The Time Traveller’s Wife with the driving tension of John Grisham’s best work.”)
Saunders and I both have talking ghosts. But lots of books do. My ghosts know they’re dead and want to stay that way. Saunders’s ghosts have mostly decided to forget that they’re dead so they can hang on to some semblance of life and hope. Mine look and act more or less like people, his are more monstrous.
I include interstitial chapters in the POV of the ghosts describing how they died. In Saunders’s book, the ghosts are compelled to repeatedly tell their stories to each other, gathering some new mutation every time they do. (American Gods includes interstitial chapters about the gods coming to America that are much closer to mine, although I’d already written mine when I read that book.)
I also include interstitial chapters with information about the world in various formats—blog posts, academic papers, news articles, etc.—but I wrote them all. I include fake citations as well. Saunders includes interstitial chapters with short citations from real-world primary sources, and he uses these to explore what President Lincoln is thinking.
Although we’re using these techniques in slightly different ways for different purposes, I recognize that my work will be compared to this. And Saunders does these things pretty well. So I worry that people will read my work with the assumption that I was trying to emulate (or was at least inspired by) Lincoln in the Bardo and judge me as failing at that goal.
But of course, that wasn’t my goal. I started this novel almost 10 years ago, and I finished the first draft (in which I nailed down these format choices) well before Lincoln was published. This is one of the really frustrating things about how long this whole process takes, especially when your day job doesn’t support working on your novel all day. What a privilege that would be.
What I didn’t like
Format similarities aside, I really struggled with the way the narrative is structured. Partly, it was difficult to follow, bouncing irregularly between narrators with only their names to differentiate them. The voices are pretty similar, except for the exaggerated ones that aren’t. As the novel progressed and I got more used to this, it became easier to keep up with.
But it is non-traditional, and so partly, I felt frustrated knowing that this only gets published because Saunders is part of the establishment. Publishers (editors, agents, readers) will allow him to take risks because he’s already been established as good, as respected, as intellectual. He no longer has to prove that he’s good. I cannot imagine this as a debut novel. I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a woman. And I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a person of color.
One could make an argument that the female and non-white characters are treated the way they might have been at the time. Fine. The novel opens with—and sticks with as a main narrator—a ghost who has a giant erect penis sticking out in front of him, so large he trips over it. Other ghosts have spectral orgies, one female and three or four males. Black characters and poor whites speak ridiculously. There’s a wet, dripping penis and a woman who was repeatedly raped, and some female ghosts who continue to be raped after death… And just, no. Enough. I’m so sick of this privileged white male description of the world. At least this book didn’t last as long as Ulysses.
Also, I was almost exactly at the halfway point before I figured out what the main conflict of the book was and got a rough idea of how the ghosts “worked.” This is frustrating to me too after hearing from early readers of my work that they needed the rules of my ghost world spelled out more clearly. And everyone knows that if you haven’t hooked your potential agent/editor/publisher/reader in the first two paragraphs (or, you know, ten words) with your main conflict, then they’ll never read on. And yet, there’s some built-in trust in the establishment that allows this work to thrive. Like once an author has made it, needing those things reflects poorly on the reader, not the book.
What I liked
By the time I got to the end—had figured out the plot, themes, techniques, and characters—I could more easily see how well this was put together. Problems above notwithstanding, it is well done. Using real-world citations to fill in President Lincoln’s memories was a clever way to both set the context and get the reader to believe in this world.
Let’s start by acknowledging that this blog doesn’t have many regular readers.
It started mostly as a place for me to talk about the things I’m reading, and so the lack of a regular readership (and the expectations they may have) isn’t a bad thing, IMO.
But am I getting the most out of this blog, for me?
I think not.
I’ve modeled the posts after book reviews—professional ones and the better ones on Goodreads. I did that because I thought that’s how book reviews were supposed to sound.
And I thought that my mental processing of a book could best be expressed in a review.
The truth is that I don’t want to be a book reviewer. Not for pay, and not for fun. I don’t even read book reviews until after I’ve finished the book.
What I want to do is to read as much as possible. I want to learn from other writers. I want to churn on their work to recognize what they do well, what I can emulate, and why I hate the parts I inevitably hate.
And a traditional book review doesn’t really allow me to do that.
So I’m going to be rethinking this space. I have a new structure in mind (I like structure), but I want to give myself freedom to scrap that structure if I have something else to say.
First thing to go is the star ratings. If I can sum up an entire book—a whole world or multiple worlds with lives and relationships and choices and consequences—on a scale of 1 to 5, then I didn’t read it honestly enough. Next, I want to focus on what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I can learn from each work. There won’t be plot summaries, but there might be spoilers.
If that doesn’t feel right? Then I’ll adjust. Because this blog is meant to give a window into my headspace, not to mold my thoughts around what I think others what to hear. I do enough of that kind of writing for my day job.
And to you, dear reader who has stumbled into this monologue, thank you. Thank you for being curious enough to stick with me. To see where this chewing and cogitation leads us. While I’d be happy to hear from you, it’s ok if you stay quiet too. Because I’ll just keep reading and processing and trying to learn. And I hope you’ll learn along with me.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave who escapes a Southern plantation and makes her way North, facing a variety of tension-filled challenges, cultural observations, and threats from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned people.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did. But I got really hung up on the way the author distances the narrative from any sort of lived experience. Most every aspect is told, not shown. The most pivotal, dramatic moments—including the violent climax—exist through flashbacks after the reader already knows the outcome. And it’s not a dialogue-heavy flashback, in which one character explains his or her first-person experience, full of emotion and reflection. It’s more of a textbook description of the action. The only emotion comes from the horror of the action itself, not from any connection to the characters experiencing it.
And, okay. The railroad. I try hard not to read any other reviews (just the book-jacket-type summaries) before I start a book. So when Cora and Caesar climb down into a tunnel and end up on a subway platform… what? I had to ask someone. “Have I misunderstood this my whole life? It *is* a metaphor, right?”
The literal railroad underground throws this novel into a different category, at least for me. It’s no longer historical fiction. Something closer to fantasy fiction. And then I don’t know how much to believe from the rest of the story. That might not have bothered me so much if the novel was on a topic besides American slavery. But there are so many untold stories on this topic already—dramatic, emotional stories that need to be shared, even as fictionalized accounts—that I can’t find a place where this horrific fantasy version fits.
I can see why so many people liked this novel. Obviously, take it all with a grain of salt—although I have no idea how big a grain to recommend. And if you find you’re not engaging with the main character in the first few chapters, it’s okay to give it up, because that’s not going to get much better.
Read my reviews on