Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
US pub date: February 14, 2017
I can’t decide whether to begin this review by saying that Lincoln in the Bardo is ‘the most unique’ book I’ve ever read, or ‘the weirdest.’ So we’re going to go with both, because it is. Both unique and deeply weird. I’m starting this review completely unsure of the star rating I’m going to end up giving it by the end, because I’m finding it incredibly difficult to evaluate a book that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s not wholly novel, or wholly poetry, or wholly play, but some strange fusion, something in between. A literary ‘bardo’ of sorts, if you will.
In 1862 Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie dies, and there are some accounts of Lincoln going to visit his son’s body in the cemetery. George Saunders takes this small detail of Lincoln’s life and runs with it, turning it into a bizarrely exhilarating literary exploration of life, death, and grief. Combining this snippet of American history with the Tibetan concept of the bardo, the liminal state between life and death, Lincoln in the Bardo is told by a chorus of voices, inhabitants of the cemetery, who observe Lincoln’s mourning.
I’m not going to pretend that I understood this book completely. I think I could read it ten more times and still not fully understand it. I think at least part of that had to do with the fact that I was so far out of my wheelhouse with this one. I’m pretty abysmal with American history, so I found myself wondering which ‘citations’ are fact and which are fiction; which names mentioned are real people and which are Saunders’ inventions. I’m also unclear as to whether how much of this ambiguity was intentional, and how much was me just being obtuse. But it certainly made for a confusing read at times. I’m not even sure that being a Civil War buff is necessary to this reading experience – I’m scrolling through reviews and getting the impression that there are plenty of people who loved this book who weren’t terribly familiar with Lincoln’s life beforehand. I guess it’s just my own personal hangup. I felt like I was stumbling around blindly for a good part of this novel, which was sort of unsettling.
If I had to try to simplify this book, which is no easy feat, I’d say that it’s about the commonality of the human experience; the unifying factors that transcend social status and race and culture. That’s what really resonated with me, at least. While I thought the first part was slow and perhaps too bogged down with irrelevant details, there were certain passages of part 2 that struck me so deeply it was absolutely gut-wrenching. Saunders’ prose is absolutely gorgeous, both genuinely moving and also darkly comedic at times, and I envy that ability of his. I also envy his ability to say so much in so few words. This isn’t a particularly long book, all things considered, but it’s still one of the most thematically rich things I’ve ever read. I’m going to be thinking about this one for weeks.
I didn’t fully love this book and remain rather conflicted, but I’m finding myself unable to go lower than 4 stars, because it’s undeniably the most innovative and thought-provoking thing I’ve read in ages. For me it was frustrating but rewarding.
Also. I wouldn’t have picked this one up if it weren’t for Sam’s gorgeous review – check it out!