Lincoln in the Bardo Redux: Still Weird, Still Great

Most weeks, this blog is about a different book. Lincoln in the Bardo is so important that it gets two posts. It’s seriously good. It’s hard to call this stuff, but it might be the next big thing people look back at in a century and think “Whoa, there was a forking path in the history of art.” One of the areas in which Saunders was most inventive was how he constructed 166 completely distinct characters in a single book, so I asked him about that.

I was lucky enough to go see Saunders speak about his book. The event took place in a church, because the demand was so heavy that the nearby bookstore couldn’t accommodate it. High ceilings, arches, stained glass, and a guy from Chicago standing at the pulpit talking about art. It was a really great night, and I got to ask him a question about what his process was for making all those different voices sound so very different. What follows is an inexpertly copied transcript, with changes made for the various uncertainties of human speech (ums, ahs, you knows). My question was about how different each character sounded, but the answer I got was about his entire philosophy of writing. It was extremely gratifying. Thanks, George!

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He drew me a ghost and a Lincoln inside his signature. I mean, he drew that for everyone, but he also drew it for me.

Anyway, here it is:

Q: When I was reading, what I was most impressed with was how sharply distinct each voice was, and doing that with 160-odd characters, even the ones that are just there for like, half a page, hello-goodbye, I was just wondering what went into making those voices so clear and distinct.

A: Oh thank you, yeah. You know, in my short fiction, it’s always in a contemporary voice; I’ll often have two or three characters, and I really try hard to distinguish them in voice, and that means going really overboard on two or three voices. In this book as soon as I realized how many people there were going to be, there’s a hundred-sixty-six, I thought, I have to maybe scale it down just a bit so I can sort of make that many versions. And the approach really was, I mean, my whole thing on writing is, it’s based on a three-part mantra. Donald Barthelme said, ‘The writer is a person who, embarking on her task, does not know what to do.’ Gerald Stern, in a slightly different register, and I’ll clean this up because we’re in church, ‘If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love, then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.’ And then Einstein, taking it up another level, as he always did, said, ‘No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception,’ which for artists is a real deep thing. If the thing only is what you thought it was gonna be, then you’ve disappointed. So, in my process, I’m always just kind of proceeding at speed, trying to have as few notions about it as I can, almost imagining like there’s a meter in my head with ‘P’ over here for positive, ‘N’ over here for negative, and the job is just to read, and revise, and watch that needle, without any sort of attachment to where you wanted to be. So, it’s up in the positive, if it goes in the negative, you don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh no it didn’t,’ and you also don’t do the thing that says, ‘I suck. I have to go back to law school.’ You just say, what you kinda do is, and my thing is you sorta turn to the story and you say, ‘Hey, I notice you’re down in the negative here,’ and the story will go, ‘No I’m not,’ and you say, ‘Well, I kinda think you are, it’s okay, I still love you,’ and it says, ‘Ah yeah, well,’ and you say, ‘Well, what’s the problem, what’s the problem with the story?’ And it goes, ‘I’m boring.’

‘You are boring, you poor thing. Can you tell me, where are you boring?’

‘Page six.’

‘Ok, I agree. Where exactly?’

‘Third line.’

And you go to the third line, and it says like, ‘Bill sat at the empty table, the black planar expanse, the dark flatness,’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’

So it’s a very intuitive approach, and it’s kinda based on the idea that when we’re reading, something crazy’s going on in the mind; it’s so intelligent, and it’s picking up so many signals off the text that are kinda subverbal, you couldn’t articulate them. So in that heightened beautiful state, reader and writer together kind of reach this communion, basically. So, when I’m writing I’m trying to make the voices (to come back, finally, to your question), I think what I do is I try to be as deep in the text as I can, and then I turn over and say OK I need a ghost over here, and then, this is the scary part, I just trust the verbal overflow. You know at that point, a voice will appear, as you’re typing, bom bom bom. So, the trick is to not say, ‘I don’t want that ghost,’ or ‘What does that ghost mean?’ but just like, ‘Go ahead, tell me,’ you know. And so it’s sort of a sustained improvisation, and even with that number of characters you kinda remember what you’ve done before, and your subconscious is moving you away from those, so it’s kind of a crazy process of believing there’s a part of your mind that’s smarter than the surface part, and then sort of allowing that to come through.

So there’s a small piece of George Saunders’ writing process, which I was super excited to hear. Whether he’s the greatest living American writer is a matter of opinion, but he’s doubtlessly in the running. Part of why he’s where he is, and part of what his answer makes clear, is he takes his writing as seriously as a heart surgeon takes his work. He’s not just, you know, telling some story or whatever. He’s telling the perfect story, the only story that could grow in the space in which he’s working. If you haven’t checked out his entire opus, you really should.

Here, I’ll help: https://www.amazon.com/George-Saunders/e/B000APEZ74/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1488608095&sr=8-2-ent

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Rick and Morty is what happens when Dan Harmon gets carte blanche

I am extraordinarily late to this party, but Rick and Morty is the best currently-running cartoon on television. It’s also currently available for free on the Adult Swim website. It is endlessly inventive, does not shy away from complexity, and does a surprisingly good job on exploring character traits for a 23-minute show. It’s the baby of Dan Harmon, so if you liked the absolute absurdity of some of Community’s plotlines, you’ll appreciate the same style. The absurdity coupled with the effectively limitless conceptual space of the SF setting results in a show that is constantly entertaining because it’s constantly new. Think about all the times Community got ridiculous — the Halloween zombie episode, the paintball episode, etc. — and then think about what would happen if you moved that aesthetic from a show about community college to a show about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass. I’m getting ahead of myself. This show is about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass, a cynical, alcoholic 60-year-old who is probably the smartest being in existence. He’s a man who built a robot at the breakfast table because he needed something to pass him the butter. He built a butter-passing robot in like two minutes because he was lazy.

The eponymous pair of the show is this super-genius, Rick and his rather stupid grandson, Morty. Rick has returned to the family after years of absence, and his daughter Beth has abandonment issues and is terrified he’ll leave again. This creates tension with her husband, Jerry, who does not like Rick because he makes him feel stupid (he is) and has a bad influence on his son. There’s also Morty’s sister, Summer, who is mostly interesting because she’s a normal teenage girl — she’s the only character who is not dysfunctional. The relationship of these characters is one hint of the greatness of this show. It’s a zany sci-fi hijinks cartoon that also addresses the reality of human interaction. For example, the failing marriage between Morty’s mom and dad, two deeply hurt and codependent people, is an ongoing topic across all episodes.

The main draw of the show is its sheer inventiveness. In one episode, Jerry is annoyed that the family dog is so stupid. He pesters Rick until he solves the problem by putting an intelligence helmet on the dog. The dog spends a little while fetching slippers, using the toilet, etc. Then he achieves self-awareness, modifies his helmet to bestow super-intelligence, enslaves the family, and starts building an enhanced dog army. In another episode, Rick gives the family a Mr. Meeseeks box. The box is alien tech. When the user hits a button, a humanoid Mr. Meeseeks pops into existence, solves a problem you set for it, and then de-manifests. The dad, Jerry, asks for help getting two strokes off his golf game, but he’s so bad at everything that the Meeseeks can’t help him, gets distraught, and hits the Meeseeks button itself, asking a second Meeseeks to help it help Jerry. This process repeats until there are dozens of Mr. Meeseeks all experiencing an existential crisis. The only way to stop a homicidal rampage is for Jerry to actually improve his golf game. There’s the one where aliens place Rick and Morty (and accidentally Jerry) in a simulation of their normal lives, hoping to trick Rick into giving them one of his technological secrets. The problem is, the simulation is really low-rent, and the only person dumb enough not to notice anything wrong (people walking through trees, his wife responding to him robotically and using the exact same words, seeing the same three people over and over again throughout the town due to the limits of the simulation’s processing power) is Jerry, and as a result, the poor dumb bastard has the best day of his life. Every episode has some high-concept core around which all the wackiness happens. The cardinal sin of bad art in any medium is to be boring, and this constant renewal of ideas puts Rick and Morty on the opposite side of that spectrum.

The interactions between Rick and Morty also add to the show’s appeal. On one side, you have a sociopathic genius who once built an entire pocket universe, filled with beings to whom he was a god, just to use as a car battery. On the other, there’s a kid who isn’t that smart, but also thinks that maybe doing whatever you want with no regard for destruction, mayhem, or morals maybe isn’t the best path. For example:

This is a pretty good encapsulation of what the show is all about. Rick sells a gun to an assassin to get enough money to go to a galactic Dave and Buster’s. Morty, horrified at his callous disregard for life, refuses to have a good time. This has all the other elements of a Rick and Morty show: the weirdness of them going to a galactic arcade, the variety of all the background aliens there, the high-concept of one of the arcade games taking the player through an entire life from childhood through death, the cynicism of Rick saying “55 years, not bad!” while Morty, still confused from the virtual reality, desperately asks “Where’s my wife?!”

The key element that ties everything else together is Rick himself. The character is so compelling because of the dynamic tension between wanting to root for the smartest guy in the room and being horrified by what a complete asshole he is. He can out-think anyone, build the coolest machines, and take his grandson on eye-opening adventures of breathtaking scope. On the other hand, he abandoned his daughter, is a galactic criminal, and seems literally not to care about anyone’s life, human, alien, or otherwise. He embodies the Darth Vader/Walter White effect, in which individuals of extraordinary competence, no matter how morally repugnant, appeal to audiences. Also, although he is completely unrepentant, he does have one single redeeming factor that the show buries deep: whenever he has to choose between the safety of his family and himself, he sacrifices himself. That one tiny spot of humanity colors the rest of his character and elevates him (just barely) to good-guy status. Well, not a “good” guy, but you get the picture.

The last episode of this show came out a year and a half ago, after a hell of a cliffhanger. Legions of fans have been painfully awaiting its return, and now I join their ranks. However long it takes for season three to premiere, it will be worth the wait. I’ll leave you with one more clip that will probably serve as a better indication of whether you should invest in this show than anything I’ve said. It’s the cold open for one of the episodes. If it makes you laugh, watch the show. If it’s too weird and off-putting for you, don’t watch the show.