You’ll probably read Lincoln in the Bardo because everyone is talking about it and because George Saunders is some kind of savant of literary genius who writes sentences that are so particular in their detail and yet so vast in their evocation of feeling that while reading you sort of stumble between the narrative itself and the awareness that you are reading the work of a master of language-to-mean. Not unlike my own opening run-on-sentence, right? Right.
Set in a cemetery during the early years of the American Civil War, we follow the story of the recently deceased, Willie Lincoln (that Lincoln’s son), and his decision whether to stay in the ghostly realm in the hope of making contact with his father or to journey to the afterlife. That narrative thread is it, really, in terms of plot. I suppose you could add the elements of whether Lincoln himself will be able to make peace with his son’s death. And whether periphery characters will make their own journeys. That is to say this is not a novel heavily focused on plot.
Which begs a different question of whether this is a novel at all, or what makes a novel. [In following the wikipedia wormhole around defining the genre, I stumbled on the controversy surrounding Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach being nominated for the Booker – as clocking in at 150 pages, many felt it was a ‘mere’ novella.] I’d put it something like a long fictional work that has both a central conflict and some characters (ideally doing something interesting). By my hastily assembled criteria Lincoln in the Bardo certainly qualifies. Though it is short. Not in page number. But because the book is entirely short (often one line) snatches of a character thought or dialogue or excerpt from a fictional historical text, the reader is left with a book that is very thin even while its physical product looks like a standard novel form.
Did I like it? I did. Though I can see why you might not. It could be that the frequent and hurried switches among narrative voices is disorienting; or the consequent absence of a single character with whom to fully identify or follow makes it a challenge to stay attentive (an exception being Lincoln, though interestingly, he is also the only character we do not hear from explicitly). And the form itself – snippets and snatches of voices and history – demands careful attention as failing to attend will quickly leave you lost in the scant plot there is to follow. So why did I like it? I thought it a useful exploration of the value of individual lives (short answer: there isn’t much value in an individual life) and the extent to which, and willingness with which, we delude ourselves about both the significance of our individual life and the conditions in which we live. As the vast majority of the ghosts do not know they are dead – thinking themselves merely sick – we witness a (not so subtle) exploration of false consciousness and the need to rouse people from their collective-individual fantasy of the matter of their life.
And then the historical fiction fan in me loved the whimsy of imagining the historical past through the endless historical fragments assembled through imagination and put on display as though they are fact: calling to mind the urgency in our own moment of discerning among the factual and that which simply resembles the factual on the grounds of its earnest presentation or appearance in reputable form.
It’s probably not worth me encouraging you or not as inevitably someone will gift you this book, or your book club will choose it, or you’ll find it in the random bin of books at a yard sale three years from now and recall the title as being a significant one from the spring of 2017. So just go ahead. Read it – the reading itself will take you a few hours at most – and then let me know what you think. Am I way off? Are my book club people right and this book is mostly terrible, but is getting a good review because its author is Saunders? Am I way off because it’s actually a work of incredible genius and I should be trumpeting its glory with more vigour? I look forward to you telling me what’s what. Until then I remain… xoe.