book review – ‘lincoln in the bardo’ by george saunders

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“Though on the surface it seemed that every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see one another this way. As suffering, limited beings — Perennially outmatch by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”

One of many beautiful lines from Saunders’ first novel, and newest literary publication.

Blurb (from Amazon.com) – February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body. From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul. Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Though I certainly have critiques of this novel, I must start by saying I was quite satisfied when I came to its end. Lincoln in the Bardo, simply put, is a very good novel.

Experimental literary devices and tactics are always welcome to me. I consider that perhaps my favorite forms of modern literature would fall under the wide and under-defined moniker “experimental.” Saunders’ form in this novel qualifies as experimental, in my assessment, both structurally and somewhat conceptually. The struggle I had while reading, however, is that not infrequently the novel structure feels contrived and forced. I loved the idea, but the execution falters. Physically, while a beautifully bound novel, the layout causes issues for the reader — the act of reading was interrupted multiple times by a need to flip around in the text to discover who, at a given moment, was speaking (or being quoted, depending on the chapter). While not necessarily the author’s fault, the reading experience was lessened by what seems to be poor planning and execution on the part of the publisher.

Though not perfect, I truly loved what Saunders was aiming at with Lincoln in the Bardo. I especially appreciated his use of bardo, instead of purgatory. As a brief instructional, bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth – a state commonly referred to in some Buddhist and Tibetan thought traditions. In the last few pages of the book, Saunders puts the distinction to wonderful use (no spoilers, but marvelously handled).

I enjoyed the writing in this book considerably more than Tenth of December, the last publication by Saunders. The assembly of stories there, admittedly (by the author) an attempt at being experimental, also often felt forced. Perhaps these two works aren’t the most representative of his ability, seeing how one is experimenting with his usual form, and the other his first attempt at a novel. Nevertheless, there were many beautiful sentences in the book, and my few critiques will not dissuade me from reading more of the author’s work.

Character development is another strong point of the book. The way their stories were developed and shared, both with one another and with the reader, the way they interacted with one another, the shadow of memory carried by each, though never fully shared or even fully integrated by the carrier – the weaving together of a fairly large cast was deftly managed.

I only became truly upset at one point in my reading. trigger warning {facetiously typed}: Thomas Havens, character, a slave who proclaimed himself happy with his life, who even contrasts himself with the slaves who had it bad. Havens says that he had “a happy arrangement, all things considered…I was living simply an exaggerated version of any man’s life” (219-220). Why have this fictional character, in a book set in a time when human beings were still owned and where even the graveyards were segregated by race, especially in our current age of consistent attempted white-washing (including emotionally) of our egregious history? Why? [I actually put the book down here, after reading Haven’s words, angry not at his words, per se, but at his existence and inclusion. Needless.] Of course, his own words about his owners later undermine the thoughts he expresses in his brief appearance, but still…why? Having the most dialogue from a slave be in defense of the dehumanizing life he led because ‘everyone has to work and therefore trade time and freedom for necessities and he somehow didn’t really have it so bad’ – this particular decision of the author bothered me a great deal.

All things considered, Saunders has turned out a book definitely worth the investment of time and money required to enjoy it. No work is perfect, my own falls far short, but Lincoln in the Bardo is, again, a very good book. In comparing critical reviews and awards with reader reviews on sites like Amazon or Goodreads, I think my bottom line sense was felt by many readers – there are problems enough that it’s not a 5 star kind of book, but critical reviews glowed partially because of expectations and past experiences. Regardless, enjoy your reading!

This particular quote, almost entirely unrelated to the thrust of the text, though included in it, somewhat agrees with me.

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