A book review
George Saunders is a very famous writer. Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, is a lavishly praised book, with blurbs from Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Egan and Dave Eggers. Even a line from Thomas Pynchon, no less.
It’s difficult to review this kind of juggernaut. I’ve never actually come across his work before, so I agreed to read it as a sort of literary duty, as a kind of psychic penance for frittering away most of my time reading sci fi and fantasy. This, here, is a real writer, a famed essayist and writer of short stories and novellas, with his first full length work.
The story is about Willie Lincoln, the eleven year old son of Abraham Lincoln, dead in the night, buried in a crypt, who refuses to move on, who lingers in the Bardo, a kind of Tibetan limbo, with all the other such spirits in the cemetery, some of whom have been there for hundreds of years. These are the resisters, the malingerers, those ghosts who cannot let go of life, who fear the detachment of all earthly bonds. Willie is a catalyst for them, for Lincoln comes back several times during the night to hold his dead son, and these acts of Abraham Lincoln’s raw love affect these spirits and their own resolve to keep hanging onto the earthly realm.
That’s the story. When I first read it, I must confess, I was irritated. The writing can be divided into two styles. The factual, narrated story is presented as quotes from real or fictitious works of history, with almost each sentence being cited. This was not entertaining for me. It felt gimmicky, unnecessary, something along the lines of a mediocre appetizer, one of those free ones some restaurants give that are better off left in the kitchen, to be distributed to the feral cats that gather in the back alley after hours.
What is testimony of his skill, is that he can use very few words to build up these figures, these ghosts, and just from their words alone we get vivid ideas of them, in full Dickensian grime
The meat of the novel is the ghostly conversations. Now here we have some entertainment, and it is true, Saunders is an excellent writer. I enjoyed these parts, and as I entered into them I felt a kinship for the two principals, Vollman and Bevins, men who are trying to do their best even as their essential humanity has been stripped away. Still, talking ghosts are not a new thing. Spirits haunting a cemetery are not revolutionary. Telling the stories of dead people through conversations can be tiresome, especially if some of the characters don’t appeal to you. That is not Saunders’ fault, because of course no reader likes every character. But a few times, when some boring non-central ghost was prosing on, I found myself just skipping ahead, which is a shame because the book isn’t really that long.
What is true though, what is testimony of his skill, is that he can use very few words to build up these figures, these ghosts, and just from their words alone we get vivid ideas of them, in full Dickensian grime, and when I raced through this book in a few days, I marveled at how easy it was to read, how quickly I finished it.
That, however, is not the best of it. The best thing, the hardest thing I feel a writer can do is to evoke some kind of emotional response in a reader. Even crap writers can get a wry smile or a momentary twinge of anger, but eliciting any complex emotion is hard, particularly in this day of jaded readership overexposed to shocking and sensational things. But this Bardo thing will affect you in some way.
What I got from this book was really about the sweetness of loss, that moment when you are old enough to consider that you cannot occupy all the branches of your life tree, that picking one branch cuts off all the rest, that in fact death cuts it all off, that death in the end is not the cessation of this life, but also the unspoken hope of all the other lives one could have lived.
I don’t know. Read the book. Perhaps you will get something else out of it, but I assure you, you will get something.
Saad Z Hossain is the author of the novels Escape from Baghdad! and Djinn City.