Recently I read Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. It was the pick for the book club Leah and I are members (once we had a Shakespeare party). But this novel—Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the best things I’ve EVER read, and it is very deserving of winning the Man Booker Prize of 2017. Though that isn’t to say Man Booker winners, which are given to the best English novel of the year, are always my jam. I like science fiction, horror, and humor (in that order). Literary fiction is fine, but something Leah reads a lot more than me. So if I say this novel is EXCELLENT, this is really about as high of praise as I can give.
Lincoln in the Bardo is also experimental, and was a turn off to a number of our book club members. So the plot: it would be fun to call this novel “historical fiction,” as it takes place on the night when Abraham Lincoln is visiting his interred son William “Willie” Lincoln, repeatedly taking his son’s corpse into his arms. Willie died on February 20th, 1862, and from historical documents it seems that Abraham Lincoln was so broken by the event that he really did remove his son’s corpse from its temporary crypt to embrace it. Real excerpts saying as much are in the novel. But where the Lincoln in the Bardo (greatly) departs from historical fact is how the majority of what Saunders writes is about concerns ghosts watching Lincoln.
Or maybe you believe in ghosts and this really happened, so it isn’t fiction at all—ha! Anyway, a cast of various dead characters interact with Willie, Abraham, and each other, and Saunders blends truly poignant moments with the outright absurd and hilarious in a surprisingly tasteful way. The entire text is dialogue, but without quotation marks, and the first thirty pages or so are extremely confusing. The only other novel I’ve seen quite like this is Blindness, by Jose Saramago, though my jury is out on which work has a more… idiosyncratic style. At least Saunders uses names with his characters, but you never know who is talking until a passage is over, and until you have a feel for the various characters you are left to either guess at who is speaking and why, or to flip a few pages forward and look for a name at the bottom of a passage.
The characters are pretty unique, however—and basically all are dead. The main ones include and older man who was killed on the night he would consummate his marriage, a man who regretted committing suicide at the last second, and a pastor who is morally exemplary, but who still had a complicated relation with the faith. All are in the bardo—a Tibetan state that could roughly be seen as purgatory—because of being unsatisfied with life. And there are also the ghosts of soldiers, of plantation owners, of slaves, of professors, of manufacturers, and of slews of other people who would have lived in the 1700 and 1800s. And through their interactions we see just about every theme a novel could hit on. That seems like it could be overwhelming, but it is never too much, and perhaps since all of the ghosts have known each other for sometimes hundreds of years they are blunt. Anyway, the novel always gets to the points it makes quickly, which was nice.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an incredibly quick read, because the pages have so much white space. Also, despite the title, and the importance of the Lincolns to the story, their stories are the minor ones. If you read this, have patience; again, it is very difficult to get into, and it never quite does what you think. But after thirty pages you’ll be flying (the formatting leaves a lot of white space), and I finished it in less than 48 hours. Now to write my own experimental novel… one where the new element is typos. “Oh those,” I’ll say, “that’s just a new thing I’m trying… don’t you get it?” One wonders how these styles come about, though for my proposed novel I’ll never tell.
–Jeff and Leah