A Review of George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”
Reading anything by George Saunders — a short story writer until his most recent effort reviewed here, Lincoln in the Bardo (which is a novel of sorts) — is challenging work. You really have to pay attention. Things that don’t make much sense finally do after a further reveal. Such is the way things go with Lincoln. I just finished reading the novel (which reads more like an elongated short story, since I read it in one three-hour sitting, or a play, as the book is divided into two parts, or acts) and I’m not sure what to make of it. I really had enjoyed Tenth of December, the previous book, which was a collection of short stories. This one? I honestly don’t know.
It’s an intangible thing to say how one “enjoys” Saunders’ work. After all, this is a guy who wins awards for being a genius. And, if anything, Saunders never talks down to the reader. He wants to bring you up to his level. That’s why his works may be masterpieces. A masterpiece teaches you how to read it. This book is no exception. The book is largely dialogue between characters who are dead, stuck in a graveyard at night, but the thing is you don’t know who is speaking until you get to the end of the dialogue passage.
As one can surmise, this brings about a fair bit of confusion for the reader. Eventually, I stopped caring about who was speaking and just sauntered ahead with the dialogue itself, or, in some chapters, the fictional historical bits of text being quoted. You really have to know a bit about the world that Saunders in inhibiting. For instance, the word “bardo” is a Tibetan word that means in-between place. So, in a sense, it is a purgatory. And then there’s the American history aspect of things, which I’ll now turn to.
The Lincoln in the story is Willie Lincoln, a son of the President of note who died in historical fact when he was young. The Lincoln of this story, after death, winds up in the bardo — or the graveyard in which he is interred. Other characters populate this world, some who resemble mythical creatures while others are naked. Some are black, which is of interest given the time period during which the novel is set (the Civil War). The thing is, all of these characters don’t seem to realize that they’re dead, but they fixate in narrative on the circumstances surrounding their death. And that’s all they do with themselves.
There are, of course, fantastical elements in the story beyond the obvious supernatural ones. (No book by Saunders would be complete without them.) And the story has the same feel of absurdity of Waiting for Godot. In tone and theme, this novel feels a lot like Keith Donohue’s Centuries of June. However, it is a Saunders book. It exists solely on its own plane and level.
So I’m not sure why I didn’t quite enjoy this one so much. Maybe it’s because after Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter I’ve had my fill of this time period in American history. However, I think it’s largely because I just found the book rather confusing to read. The naming your characters after a piece of dialogue trick may have been better suited to a short story. In novel form, it just gets rather tiresome after awhile. Plus, there are bits here and there of pretentious automatic writing. It’s as though Saunders is going all James Joyce on us. (Not that he hasn’t really before, but, again, he did them in the short story format, where it’s easier to swallow.)
That all said, there are those who have enjoyed this book, and I get the feeling that this is the sort of thing that Pulitzers get handed out to. I also imagine that many a university is going to have this book on their English Lit class reading list in some time. Clearly, Lincoln in the Bardo strives to be High Art, even when it reaches the gutter (two black characters curse exaggeratedly, but, of course, given the setting and place, those words are blocked out, which, too, adds to the challenges of reading the text). So you might not want to take my word for it. There are probably plenty of those who are going to be supercharged from this read.
And the book does have important things to say on a number of themes. How race relations existed and exist in America. The love between father and son. The bonds of life that those in the life beyond this life may hold onto. How inaccurate or imprecise our knowledge of history may just be. All of those things and more. For a book that has a lot of whitespace, the ideas are densely packed and not a word is wasted. Well, almost not a word, I guess, with all of that stream-of-consciousness going on.
The thing is, is the book entertaining? Sometimes? Is the book fun and exciting? Well, I suppose I did read it in one sitting. However, I found that reading Lincoln in the Bardo was something that I felt obligated to do rather than something I profoundly enjoyed doing. So there’s that. I didn’t get that feeling when I was reading most of the stories in Tenth of December. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it was that the former book was short stories?
I will say that Lincoln in the Bardo will probably be unlike anything you’ve ever read. It does have that going for it, even if it isn’t always successful. And I feel smarter having read this book and unlocking its narrative structure. Perhaps my opinion is coloured by a fresh read and I may grow to appreciate this more over time. Still, I’m thinking about the characters and how poorly developed they are — the structure of the book has something to do with that — and the “work” that the reader has to invest just to make sense of the narrative.
Conclusively, I found Lincoln in the Bardo to be a middling read. I’m glad I read it, but I also feel as though I spent three hours of my life that I’m never going to get back, too. I really wish the characters were more adequately described, or that this novel were actually a play so you could see how things are really meant to be with real eyes, not just your mind’s eye. Frankly, I expected more from this book, so, unless you’re a fan of Saunders’ past work, this one is a curio at best and something you can skip reading, unless of course a small slice of Civil War history is something that fascinates and interests you. And the dead. Yes, the dead.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was published by Random House on February 14, 2017.
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