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review 2018-07-21 14:36
Experimental, challenging, touching and funny at times but not a crowd-pleaser.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

I thank NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

First, in case you have not read the book or anything about it, and wonder what the bardo of the title refers to, it is a Buddhist concept (in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems, and I’ve read that Saunders is a Buddhist) referring to an intermediate state between death and rebirth (between two lives on Earth).

Now that we’ve cleared that out, if you follow my blog, you might remember that I reviewed some of the books that had made the long and the short-list of the Booker Prize. I enjoyed some of them more than others, but I had not read the book that actually won the Prize, and when I saw it come up on NetGalley, I could not resist. I had heard and read a great deal about it, and I felt I had to check it for myself.

This is not a standard novel. It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid fever. Other chapters, also fragmented, contain first-person observations by a large variety of characters that ‘live’ at the cemetery where Willie is laid to rest. Call them ghosts, spirits, or whatever you prefer, they seem to have been there for a while, some longer than others, and they interact with each other, while at the same time talking about themselves and taking a keen interested on little Willie Lincoln and his father. We have the spirits of black and white characters, young and old, men and women, well-off citizens and paupers, people who had lead seemingly morally exemplary lives and others who had gone down the wrong path, some who had taken their own lives, others who had died by accident or in bed. There are some actively atoning for their sins while others only seek entertainment. They are a motley crew, and although we hear mostly from three of these characters (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas) and from Willie, they all make important contributions and help create a whole that is more than its parts.

The structure of the novel is puzzling and intriguing, and although it made me think of postmodernism and pastiche, the methodology used to construct the novel is not an attempt at emptying it of meaning or making us reflect upon the artificiality and futility of seeking truth and understanding. The death of a child (even if we are not parents, most of us are close enough to the children of relatives and/or friends to be able to imagine what it must be like) is a terrible tragedy and although there are light moments in the novel, there are touching and moving ones as well. Some of the fragments emphasise the diverse opinions and judgements about Lincoln and his presidency (by the way, although some of these fragments are real documents from the period, others have been created by Saunders, and it is not evident while reading which ones are which), but everybody agrees on the devastating effect the death of his son had over the president. The hopeful ending might feel somewhat surprising but is open to interpretation, like the rest of the text.

There are fragments that will make readers wonder about religious beliefs, others that question the social order, racial ideas, and the Civil War. But I fully understand the puzzlement of many readers who leave negative reviews on this book (and the negative reviews are many) stating that they don’t understand anything, it goes over their heads, and it is not really a novel. Some readers, familiar with Saunders’s short-stories, prefer those to the novel, but as I have not read them, I cannot comment.

Here some examples of the style of writing in the book (in this case, I definitely recommend prospective readers to check inside or get a sample to see if it suits their reading taste).

…only imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way.

Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.

The money flows out, tens of thousands of men wait, are rearranged to no purpose, march pointlessly over expensive bridges thrown up for the occasion, march back across the same bridges, which are then torn down. And nothing whatsoever is accomplished.

Blame and Guilt are the furies that haunt houses where death takes children like Willie Lincoln; and in this case there was more than enough blame to go around.

The book collects a large number of endorsements and reviews at the end, and I’ve chosen this one by James Marriott, from The Times, for its briefness and accuracy: ‘The book is as weird as it sounds, but it’s also pretty darn good.’

In sum, this is a highly experimental book, for readers who enjoy a challenge and don’t mind a non-linear narrative, who enjoy literary fiction not focused on plot, and are intrigued by new writers and what makes critics tic. It is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one and I, for one, hope to catch up on some of the author's previous books.

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review 2018-07-09 00:50
Moving story about grief and choices.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, author: Narrators, *too many narrators to list.

It would take a hard-hearted person not to be moved by the story of the emotional collapse of Mary Lincoln and the terrible outward grief shown by President Abraham Lincoln when their young, very well loved 11 year old son Willie, passed away. He took sick on the day of a state dinner, and both parents were preoccupied with thoughts of him on that evening. The doctor thought he was recovering, but he was incorrect, and Willie died the following day.

The novel is written in a confusing way for many a reader, I am sure, and for the listener, the book will quite possibly be a chore. The narrative is laced with footnotes and their placement is distracting as they interrupt the flow of narrative, which in itself is difficult because it jumps around a lot. Fortunately, I had a print copy to guide me as I listened to the audio. It might take a very strong willed person to stick it out with the audio alone. The print copy is distracting also with the footnotes appearing on the page mixed in with the narrative as they occur, rather than on the bottom of the page or at the end in a group.

Surrounding the story of Lincoln’s loss is the story of the bardo, the place one stays between death and the next state one passes into. The time in that place is determined by the age at death and the life one lived coupled with the manner of death. The place is very nebulous with spirits of the dead passing in and out of the dialogue, some stuck in place, some evil, some unsure that they are dead and all pretty much missing the life they once had and wishing they could return to it. Many of the deaths occurred as a new adventure was about to be embarked upon or a future was unrolling and then stopped in its tracks, or a decision was made that could not be reversed although it was a foolish one which was the cause of the death. Others were the result of an unexpected and unanticipated accident or illness. The spirit activity takes place at the cemetery where Willie has been placed in a borrowed crypt until he can be moved. The story unwinds through the conversations of the various spirits or the dead, as they confess about their lives and discuss the care of the child, Willie, for whom they take responsibility.

Willie dies as the news of the soldier’s deaths goes public and the loss of so many men and of Willie, at the same time, weighs heavily on Lincoln’s shoulders. He lost his son, not a soldier, but he understands how great a loss it is for the families that have fighting men on the front, those still there and those who have died, and he recognizes that he is responsible for all of it. Death is forever. He wonders if it is right to send more to die in order to prevent further death. It seems like a contradiction of terms.

I found the language unnecessarily vulgar and the preoccupation of the spirits with sex to be particularly annoying. However, the thoughts of the spirits in the spirit world were fascinating as they traveled between religiosity and superstition, remorse and denial.

The footnotes pointed out the non-fiction aspects of the behavior of the Lincolns and also his administration during wartime. The rest of the story was fantasy trending to the supernatural. Some of the story was repetitive, as well, and I found it depressing and dark. Every possible aberrant behavior was included in one or another character that had died and been judged unfit or unworthy to go on to a better place, yet some that were judged deficient had no idea what sin they had committed. The story gets an A for creativity but an F for presentation, hence, I gave it a C or three stars.

The book seemed as much about choices as it did about Lincoln. Each character was dealing with the results of some choice that had been made. I decided that the book won the Man Booker Prize because of the intense imagination of the author and his unusual presentation of ideas as he coupled fantasy with reality with the use of so many quotes and footnotes.

An interesting aspect of the story was how the enemies of Lincoln called him names like idiot and incompetent, wishing him ill with an end to his term and even his life. It reminded me of how the enemies of our current President Trump are behaving and made me wonder if someday, he too, might be considered far differently and be hailed as a hero for his accomplishments.

 

*On the Random House webpage, it says that “The 166-person full cast features award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders’ family, friends, and members of his publishing team…."

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/231506/lincoln-in-the-bardo-by-george-saunders/audio

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review 2018-07-06 11:25
Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

So, I was shopping Bloomsbury's annual end of financial year sale the other day, when I was suddenly possessed by someone who reads award winning literature; not wanting to waste the money spent on the book, I wanted to read it before the exorcism, so I cracked it open as soon as it arrived.  The ripping-off-the-bandaid method for personal growth.

 

Half-kidding aside, while I do generally use literary award short lists as guides of what not to buy, Lincoln in the Bardo has intrigued me for some time - from the descriptions, it came across as an adult version of Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and while this sale was on it seemed as good a time as any to give it a try.

 

It turns out there is a lot in common with The Graveyard Book in terms of setting and characters, but it goes worlds beyond, too.  It's an odd book.  Written as something akin to witness testimony, only in present voice, and interspaced with historical quotes about the Lincoln administration and Willie Lincoln's death, each complete with proper citations, it's constructed in a way that is unique in my (admittedly limited) literary experience.

 

Upon Willie Lincoln's death and internment, Willie fails to move on as he should and a battle erupts in the graveyard over his eternal soul.  Saunders populates the graveyard cast with a wide and varied collection of souls, good and bad, all flawed, although Saunders seems to prefer a larger percentage of twisted and corrupted.  Perhaps this makes sense in the construct of the story's logic, but there were moments that teetered precariously towards gratuitous. 

 

Is this story Man Booker worthy?  I wouldn't know, but it is brilliantly written; unique; startlingly creative.  Did I like it?  Yes, it was a compelling story; one I couldn't put down and read in two sittings.  Do I think it's the acme of the literary form?  No, but probably not far from it.  Did I find it flawless?  No. What was the reverend's fate?  Saunders invested an awful lot of intimate detail in the reverend to just leave his fate unexplained.  And I found the ending ... odd.  Abrupt.  In any other literary form, I'd say there's a sequel in the works.

 

LIncoln in the Bardo is in the purest sense, a ripping good story; one that just happened to win an Important Literary Prize, and that's why I'd recommend it - the prize, in this case is irrelevant.  

 

Off now to that date with an exorcist... 

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review 2018-06-14 02:56
Lincoln in the Bardo (Audio)
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

I think I need to read this book. I know the audiobook has won award after award (as has the book), but it never really grabbed me. I couldn't keep my brain attached to the story. I got annoyed with it and kept rewinding, so I'm going to get an actual book copy of this from the library and try again. I love George Saunders. Honestly, the subject matter didn't interest me a ton from the blurb, so I waited. I'm a fan of his shorter work, though I quite liked Pastoralia (and don't really understand why that's not called a novel, but I digress.) 

 

So---this is a preliminary rating. Some books just don't work for me in audio. I've figured out that my brain likes to create its own sounds and sights etc, so I usually don't do audio on fiction unless it's fairly easy-breezy. Oddly I learn better from listening, but I don't like to read fiction this way as much (however, I adore audio for essays, nonfiction and many memoirs.) 

 

Honestly, I'm not all that pumped, now that I know the story, to read the book, but I feel like I owe George Saunders a decent chance. And I can't believe everyone on earth likes this book except me, so I'll read it eventually and redo this little review.

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review 2018-06-13 23:22
Life in a Sick-Box
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo belongs to that rarest of fantasy sub-genres, novels about the society of ghosts living in a cemetery. Like Peter S. Beagle's 'A Fine and Private Place', the inhabitants of Oak Hill Cemetery are confused about their past and have some secrets. Like Neil Gaiman's 'The Graveyard Book' the ghosts are capable of cooperating and attempting to help each other. Like C. S. Lewis' 'The Great Divorce', the inhabitants linger due to their own stubbornness and refusal to face their present reality.

 

Bardo is one of the most oddly structured novels I have read, consisting entirely of first person narration by multiple characters, interspersed with brief quotes from historical books and articles about Abraham Lincoln. The plot is about the death of Lincoln's 11 year old son Willie Lincoln in 1862. The novel is a moving meditation on death and the necessity of facing the reality of death and moving on, for both the living and the dead.

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