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May 2021: Lincoln in the Bardo (Saunders)

posted Jun 19, 2021, 6:22 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Lincoln in the Bardo is an experimental novel that reads at times like a play and at times like a collection of quotations.  In honor of its innovative format, I decided to describe the novel in a manner that would give you a little insight into what reading the book is like.  My sources? Reviews of the book, of course.

 

George Saunders’s much-awaited first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is like a weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life.        

-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

 

The novel that has resulted is anything but a quiet tableau… Saunders’s witty and garrulous graveyard is filled with semi-spirits in a state of denial.

                                         -Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker

 

Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent.

                                         -Jason Sheehan, NPR

 

In form, the novel is a combination of film script and Lincoln-focused scrapbook, alternating dialogue among the ghosts with excerpts from historical accounts of the Civil War era, some genuine and some invented. At the center is the ghost of Willie Lincoln, a young son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and the action takes place shortly after Willie dies of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862, at age 11. The dead boy’s spirit wants to stay for the sake of his father’s visits to the “hospital-yard,” as the ghosts refer to their cemetery.

                                         -Caleb Crain, The Atlantic

 

The spirits (I hesitate to call them ghosts, since they don’t manifest to living people) are trapped in a space that is fundamentally inauthentic and unreal, much like a theme park. Unable to accept the fact of death, they have endless euphemisms for their condition (coffins are “sick boxes”, and so on) and employ all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid confronting the reality of their situation.

                                         -Hari Kunzru, The Guardian

 

The arrival of Willie Lincoln in the Bardo and the subsequent appearance in the graveyard of the stooped figure of Lincoln himself are galvanising events that compel the ghosts to think beyond their consuming personal regrets.

                                         -James Ley, Sydney Review of Books

 

The boy thus comes to symbolize the principle of “sacrifice” which sometimes organizes histories of the Civil War era. The rabble of spirits sets up this conclusion, taking an interest in the fate of Willie’s soul and in the president’s arrested grief. In representing the souls drawn to the boy, Saunders makes a bid for the kind of democratic multivocal quality of the American novel at its finest, and he casts a range of minor characters in a sometimes Whitmaniac tally of the American body politic.

                                         -Matt Sandler, L.A. Review of Books

 

The novel is told through their speeches, the narrative passing from hand to hand, mainly between a trio consisting of a young gay man who has killed himself after being rejected by his lover, an elderly reverend and a middle-aged printer who was killed in an accident before he could consummate his marriage to his young wife.

                                         -Hari Kunzru, The Guardian

 

Saunders does a fine job—and has a fine time—quickening his little necropolis to literary life, supporting his three codger principals with figures like Mrs. Blass, a once miserly widow; Jane Ellis, a woman wearied by her husband, enchanted by her daughters, and killed by some “minor surgery”; and a slave, Thomas Havens, who was reasonably content until he remembered that the few truly “discretionary” moments he had are what “other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of.”

                                         -Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker

 

The supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times — the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning — but their voices gain emotional momentum as the book progresses.

                                         -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

 

The vignettes are miniatures of the cruel, satirical stories that have won Saunders fans, and several are poignant, but they don’t have much connection to Willie’s story. The characters in question are dead, after all; their stories are over, and not amenable to further development.

                                         -Caleb Crain, The Atlantic

 

But there are moments that are almost transcendently beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl, in the form of dialog attributed in a playwright's style or historical abstracts cited with academic formality, pulled from sources invented or real, to speak about the party, about Lincoln, about grief or the war.

                                         -Jason Sheehan, NPR

 

In these pages, Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life — as experienced by the spirits of the dead, remembering missed opportunities; by Willie, as his life slips away and he enters the limbo of the bardo; and by Lincoln, as he struggles to come to terms with his son’s death and the devastation of a war that is ripping the country apart.

                                         -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

 

This is the choice Lincoln in the Bardo places before us. We can remain trapped in a deathless cycle of conflict and torment and grief, or we can embrace the healing power of empathy and forgiveness and the prospect of rebirth. The choice is that simple, that unrealistic, and that profound.

-James Ley, Sydney Review of Books

 

 

Is this collection of snippets driving you crazy?  Are you intrigued?   If the former, it is probably my selection process that is to blame.  I was trying to find a way to demonstrate, as Saunders’s novel powerfully does, that a chorus of different voices can nonetheless weave together a coherent narrative and that the contradictions that naturally arise when differing points of view are presented can highlight complexity and nuance as often as they breed confusion.  

 

As the above quotations suggest, the somewhat disjointed style of Saunders’s presentation makes the book stand out, but it can also make it quite difficult to get in to, an observation that several of our members shared during our discussion.   In fact, a couple of people noted that they could not get through the book until they acquired the audiobook version.  I must confess that I think the audiobook is a true masterpiece of the genre.  Over 160 individuals contributed their voices to the project, including some well-known actors whose voices you will probably recognize.   The audio format seems a natural fit to the style of the book, especially since the names of the speakers were no longer repeated once the listeners recognized their voices, thus allowing the voices to flow together much more smoothly than on the page, where each comment was set apart by a citation (as in my collection of reviews above).

 

Whether by persisting with the written novel, switching to the audio version or jumping back and forth between the two, almost all of our members felt drawn into the world of the book and found some appeal in its method of storytelling (though one or two never quite warmed to it).  Although frequently dark and troubling, the book was also full of humor (some of it quite bawdy-so be forewarned J).  It also had moments of profound beauty, and the characters raised interesting questions about death, grief, regret, memory, and personal identity. 

 

Some of our members were particularly intrigued by the book’s religious themes, especially its connections to Buddhism and to the Evangelical Christianity that was so popular in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War (and still today, I suppose).   Others rejected the books religious vision.  Why is Willie’s young soul supposed to be in so much more jeopardy than the souls of the adults who have been in the cemetery for decades?   The need to save Willie drives the story forward, someone noted, but what kind of heavenly justice would dream up the horrid fate that Saunders says awaits children who linger too long in this world after they have died?

 

This was not the only criticism of the book.  A few people were unsatisfied with the ending.  Others were frustrated that the full nature of the ghosts’ situation was never made clear and that we were never sure what happened to those who chose to move on.  Some of the book’s insights risked getting lost in the confusion, they worried, or drowned out in the chorus of voices. 

Others thought this lack of clarity was one of the book’s strong points.   When addressing the great mysteries of life is it not fitting that much is hidden and uncertain?   For some, these puzzles were simply an invitation to return to the book, and a few of our members had already read and/or listened to the work more than once.  Many noted that they had different reactions to the work the second time through, a fact that actual highlights my favorite lesson of Saunders’ book.    In various sections, Saunders strings together a series of quotations demonstrating how people can have different, and even contradictory, memories of the same event.  (For example, one of my favorite chapters is simply a collection of surprisingly varying statements about Lincoln’s eye color.)  Despite these differences, the flow of numerous voices all commenting of the same subject reinforces the idea that these different individuals shared an experience in common, even if they took away something slightly different from it.

 

Everyone dies alone, the novel agrees, and some of us may cling fiercely to the things that make us the unique individuals that we are.  However, living and dying are fates we all share, and the connections and relationships that we build with others define us as powerfully as the things that set us apart.  Understanding this, the novel suggests, is key to finding peace both in this life and in whatever might lie beyond.

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