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{September 25, 2019}   {Review} Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

From Goodreads: In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other—for no one but Saunders could conceive it.

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 returned to the crypt several times alone 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 thrilling, 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—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

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This book. This book is not for everyone. It’s an enigma. I went from loving it to being less than enthralled by it… I almost entirely gave up on it about halfway through, but pushed on and finally found myself enjoying it again. Lincoln in the Bardo was recommended to me as a book to possibly teach/have students research in high school AP Literature and Composition, but by a quarter of the way through, I KNEW this was absolutely not a book I’d ever be comfortable teaching… I personally can’t hand this to a student, and below, I’ll tell you why.

Lincoln in the Bardo has many awards with claims of immense literary merit; they say a novel of its like has never been written, and that may be so, but even so, I found it… Lacking? Obscene? Grandiose? Confusing? Powerful? Tedious? Engrossing? Boring? Strange?

Can I check off all of the above? Because I’m going to have to say it falls into every single one of those categories in one way or another.

For one, I’ve never read a book with over 104 chapters in it. I mean, this novel is not that long, coming in at just over 340 pages. I’d expect a dozen or two chapters, of course, but over 100? Really? Well, they say this novel is unlike any other, and in the chapter category, I’ll say that’s probably true. What really got me about the chapters is that many just end mid-sentence. And while that was strange in the beginning, it actually worked really well at the end, except that’s not how the novel truly ended. For the last 10% of the novel (read this via Kindle and audiobook), it seemed that every single chapter was the perfect conclusion, but instead, it just kept going. This was frustrating to me, to say the least, but I will admit that I enjoyed almost all of the last 10% of the novel, except for the completely uncalled for lewd “shock value” scene, which Saunders seems so fond of using, as he’s peppered them throughout this novel, and I just don’t see the point, nor did I enjoy, them.

But let me start at the beginning. When I first tried to read this novel, I bought it on Kindle and was listening to it via text-to-speech, and that was a terrible idea. This novel isn’t written like others, and Saunders instead goes back and forth between his fictitious spirit characters and actual primary sources, such as letters and diary entries from eyewitness accounts, surrounding Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and little Willie Lincoln’s death. Trying to listen to the novel go back and forth between the fiction and primary sources in a dead monotone computer voice just wasn’t working, and I had no idea what was happening in this novel. As I was driving on my way to work, I couldn’t just stop of follow along with my Kindle, so I spent an hour listening via text-to-speech, trying so hard to figure out what was happening, to no avail. At that point, I was ready to throw in the towel and thought this novel wasn’t for me. But then, I checked with my library, and they had the audiobook available! Praise God, “I’ll try again!” I thought. I’m still not sure if that was a good idea on my part, but let’s just say this was an experience.

So, the audiobook has 166 narrators. You read that right. 166 different narrators. Again, they say this book is unprecedented and there is none other out there like it. In this aspect, I agree. 166 narrators? Alright, let’s hear it. So, I began listening. And you know what, listening via audiobook made this novel come alive (no pun intended), and I really got into it! Nick Offerman narrates as one of the main spirit characters, Hans Vollman, and boy does he do a great job! I loved him in “Parks and Recreation,” and he was fantastic in this novel as well. Truth be told, I might not have finished this novel had he not been the main narrator. He really brings the story to life, and I can’t say enough good about him! But anyway, the two main spirits, Vollman and Bevins, were fabulously crafted, though some of their stories a bit strange, and I found myself drawn in by them as they perpetuate the story. They were intriguing to me, and I enjoyed the back and forth nature of their stories/dialogue and the real primary sources. The fact that Saunders intertwined historical documents and eyewitness accounts about the events surrounding Lincoln and his dying child, Willie, gave the story validity, even if some of the accounts were boring and repetitive, as I eventually found them to be… I don’t really find pages upon pages of eyewitness accounts concerning what the moon looked like the evening Willie lay dying, or pages of accounts of the color of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes all that interesting… but I digress. Initially, I was really enjoying this novel. At least, the first 15% of it I really enjoyed.

But then, somewhere between 15-25% of the way through the novel, things got… weird. It turns out, our spirit guide, Vollman, is actually running around naked with a “huge swollen member” impeding him from doing things. At this point, I was like, “What?” Why is this included in this novel? There is no historical reason, and it doesn’t fit, nor is this something I want my students reading about in class… but it only happened once, so I pushed past it. However, Vollman’s “member” was randomly mentioned throughout the whole rest of the novel, so it did get to be a bit too much. We learn in the very first chapter that Vollman wants to consummate his marriage with his wife, but can’t (because he’s dead…and won’t admit it), but is that the reason he runs around naked and Saunders continues to draw attention to his “member”? I can’t pinpoint a valid reason for its inclusion aside from Saunder’s wanting to shock the reader, which in my case, he did, because it came right out of left field… Every. Single. Time.

Now, that’s not all that was shocking. Like I said, there are 166 narrators in this novel. Some narrators literally read only one sentence from a historical document, while others play larger parts, and making up those larger parts, are many, many spirits. I’m just guessing here, but I’d say there are at least 30 different spirits in the cemetery that chime in or insist on telling their story to young Willie at some point over the course of the novel… Poor Willie, who has just arrived in the graveyard and has no idea what’s happened to him, or what’s happening around him. Most of the other spirits stories did nothing to actually move the story along. One couple in particular made my skin crawl and I see no purpose to them whatsoever: The Barons. These people are despicable, and every other word out of their mouths are “f— you/them/him/her.” Now, I’m no scholar, but this is set in 1862, the day young Willie dies/is interred in his crypt. That being said, the use of the F word didn’t really exist in the manner in which The Barons so liberally use it, as they yell at everyone and everything using this cuss. This just didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t fit with the narrative, was 100% shocking and unexpected, and gave me pause. Was the F word used like that in 1862? Well, everything I looked up concerning The F word and its popular usage and meaning says it didn’t come into the use it currently has, the same use The Baron’s use it for, until around the 1900s, so I personally don’t feel like this part of the story holds any merit, which is strange, because it’s very obvious Saunders did a ton of research for this novel. Like I said, he spends a good deal of time dishing out eyewitness accounts of the moon, Abraham Lincoln’s ugliness, and a whole slew of other information to validate the time period, which Saunders would have had to dig for. So why the use of the F word if that’s not something that would have been said back then in this manner? The only thing I can think of here is that it was purely for “shock value,” just like the orgy scene at the end of the novel that had no place or reason for being there at all.

I’m not saying that The Barons use the F word and other cusses occasionally. I’m saying it’s every other word for pages upon pages. I had my windows down in the car as I was listening, and let me tell you, I turned beat red and paused the audible, rolled up the windows, turned the sound way down, and was still uncomfortable listening to those two characters rant. Wow. They are intense, and they randomly pop up all over the place for the rest of the novel, touting their lovely language, so you never know when you’re about to be needlessly inundated by the F word.

This whole novel takes place over the course of one night, and as it turns out, no one in the cemetery, in this purgatory of sorts, really knows they’re dead. They consider themselves sick or recovering, and each day they crawl back into their “sickboxes” with their literal remains, but for some reason, they don’t understand that they’re dead. And that’s fine. That’s what actually propels this entire novel. You have the spirits knowing they can pass through the undead, can fly through walls, and cannot leave the black gate, but they don’t put two and two together that they’re in a cemetery, dead. So poor Willie, and all of them, really, have to figure that out. It’s actually a kind of cool premise, and once I figured out that was what the story was about, things really started making sense… but there was so much red tape I had to get through to figure out that this is what the novel is about, hence me nearly putting it down for good.

For one, I thought this novel was supposed to be about Willie, but he really only plays a very tiny part in this story. I also thought it was supposed to be about Abraham Lincoln attempting to come to terms with the death of his son while the country is in turmoil, but that’s also just a tiny part. Instead, it is about the spirits coming to terms with their lot in life and passing on, which in the end, was kind of beautiful. Yes, this novel was a mess. Even with the audible, I had no idea what was going on sometimes, or why certain characters existed. I was shocked and appalled, grossed out, bored with some of the never-ending historical accounts, but also enamored by the grit of it all, especially when Saunders began sharing the eye witness accounts of people who hated Lincoln and thought he was driving the nation to its end. They were appalled with him, with his throwing of a lavish party while Willie lay upstairs ill, with the Civil War and the brother/fathers/lovers dying for a cause many saw as being frivilous… and reading these brief but poignant accounts from real people who lived during the time was attention grabbing for me, especially when Saunders finally brought in the African-American voices near the conclusion (of which I wish there had been so much more). And in the end, I think there’s a pretty powerful metaphor concerning a spirit that leaves with Lincoln… but you’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

When all was finally said and done, I actually found myself having a hard time letting go of the characters and their stories. I felt, not to be cliché, that I was missing a piece of myself. “How can that be?” you might ask? I asked myself the same, especially because I had such a hard time reading this book, let alone enjoying it. I’m not sure, but part of me connected with this book, and the other part wanted to run away from it screaming.

In the end, this is a book that needs to be studied; I didn’t get it all the first time, and I certainly didn’t enjoy all of it. I probably won’t get it all the second time I read it, nor the third. And that, I believe, is what gives it “umpfh.” It’s a rich text, confusing as they come, but rich nonetheless, and while certainly not one I’d hand my highschoolers for the above-mentioned shock value peppering (that adds nothing to the story), it’s one I will someday, in the far distant future, pick up again and re-read, because there’s more to this than meets the eye/ear/senses.

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