James Gault reviews Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
If you put a group of Celebrity literary authors and critics together and asked them to choose a best book, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is the kind of book they would pick. In fact, this is exactly what they did for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Why? Maybe because this novel is a masterclass in innovative narrative techniques.
The action occurs in two places, the world of real people, and the ‘bardo’: the place, in some forms of Buddhism, where the dead wait for the next reincarnation. The story is simple. Abraham Lincoln’s young son dies of a typhoid fever and the spirits battle over his soul in this purgatory-like afterworld.
The author chooses two different and yet similar narrative methods to describe the events in these worlds. In the real world, he tells the story through quotes from published sources, with references to the source beneath each quote. In the other world, he recounts the events through the dialogue between the ghosts who inhabit it. But he lays this dialogue out like an inverted script, with the speaker being identified beneath rather than above. So the layout of the texts looks similar throughout. Another similarity is the way the story flows seamlessly from one quote or one ghost to the next. Sometimes each part confirms the previous one, and sometimes it picks up and carries on the idea from the one before. The overall effect is to expose the reader to two realities which are different but interrelated.
The author also creates similar but different atmospheres in the two settings. In both, the overriding sentiment the reader gets is darkness and foreboding. Pain and suffering feature prominently in both worlds. But, in a surprising way, while the author imbues the real world with a sense of inevitability, in the bardo he manages to convey the impression of uncertainty. While the living are prisoners of their circumstances, the dead are given the power to take action and influence the outcome. The real world is dull and ordinary, but the surreal world of the ghosts is imaginative, colourful, exciting. We are presented to the real world through the dead words of distant observers, but we see the bardo through the eyes of characters who are alive, with their problems, their desires and their emotions. Paradoxically, the author has chosen to make the living dead, and the dead alive.
The novel is an object lesson in the use of voice. He uses all the tools available to differentiate the many narrators, both the ‘living ghosts’ in the dead world and the ‘dead authors’ in the living world. He differentiates them by level of education: using swearwords, bad grammar, misspelling and slang for the poor and uneducated, and formal rigid grammar and multi-syllable vocabulary for the more elevated echelons of society. And yet he manages again to achieve a consistency by bringing it all under the umbrella of the conventions of American nineteenth century speech.
The overall theme of the book is salvation and the immortality, but while he remains true to this theme throughout, he allows himself to address a wide range of aspects of morality, guilt and forgiveness in human behaviour.
It is worthy and informative book, but it is a novel and not a manual of creative writing. And I suspect that other ordinary readers would, like me, find it a very hard read. The themes are depressing, the atmosphere dark and the writing is powerful enough to bring out emotional reactions we’d prefer not to experience. And if it has a flaw, it is in the plot development. It’s a simple story, padded out in the first two thirds of the book by insights into the living experiences of the now dead, worthwhile in themselves but irrelevant to the story. I had to put it down many times, and then will myself to go back to it. But eventually a narrative drive is established and this pulled me through to the end of this story. A great and useful read, but not an entertainment.
COMMENTS ON THIS REVIEW:
I don't know what to think of Lincoln in the Bardo, now that I've read James Gault's review. It sounded like the kind of book I'd like to read right up to the last paragraph. I'm not usually a fan of the current fad of running multiple stories or timelines at the same time. However, it can work if it is just two parallel stories that are closely linked. I thought this was where the review was going with the details about the structure. I felt confident that this wasn't one of those stories where you keep reading to get the final solution where the reason for the two timelines comes together. Then came his final paragraph; I felt so let down. Now I don't know if I should ignore his dislike for the historical side or let this one go. Has anybody read it and had a different impression?
I'm sorry if I have put you off. I have to say that my book club read this for book of the month and and there was a mixed reception - some of them really liked it, and some felt a bit like me. I must stress that my opinion is only my opinion. The theme is dark, but if that doesn't put you off, you may very well love it. James Gault.