Review – Lincoln in the Bardo

Being a part-time fiction reader, my favorite fiction books most often do away with the conventions of linear plotlines, uniform structures, and straight-forward presentations: not simply a beginning, middle, and end. One of my true joys as a reader is experiencing the vast diversity that is the reading experience: a book can be a long slog and only rewarding upon completion, a quick assault on the senses and emotions, or a book can be like reading an unknown foreign language, requiring such full concentration and comprehension that only a few pages can be read at a time. Regardless of the deviation itself, I love books that expand my appreciation for the written word, and are far beyond anything I could ever personally conceive of or compose. These works give me faith in noth only the power of literature and the many ways it can take hold of you, but also the triumph of human imagination, and the ability of humanity’s most talented to push forward the medium, evoke compassion, and expand one’s mind towards unconsidered possibility.

While this may read as a lofty opening, and run the risk of anointing an author whose work I’m not intimately familiarly, I can safely say that Lincoln in the Bardo, written by the American George Saunders, faithfully fits this criteria, and is as worthy of work of fiction as I’ve read in a while. Amid a landscape of questions surrounding the vigor and viability of the novel, as well as the turn of many popular contemporary authors towards writing books that double as political or social commentaries, Saunders’ book is a breath of fresh air, and an unexpected exploration of form, topic, and execution.

lincoln in the bardo                       Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (Random House 2017)

Note: In writing this review, I’ve deliberately removed myself from exposure to any in-depth reviews or analyses of the book to focus on my own initial impressions. I remember being perplexed and frustrated by David Foster Wallace’s acknowledgement of the “fractal” structure of his book Infinite Jest in an interview with the KCRW’s Bookworm show host Michael Silverblatt.

Saunders uses the jumping off point of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, and the backdrop of the Civil War to create a story that’s unique, entertaining, funny (at times), and heartbreaking (at others). Rather than resorting to the imagined inner thoughts and dialogue of Lincoln and create a straightforward work of historical fiction on the weight and depth of Lincoln’s heart and heartbreak in the midst of a country in crisis and the death of his third-eldest son, Saunders combines historical scholarship, fiction, and elements of the fantastic and supernature to create a full picture of Lincoln the father, person, and President amid the bloodiest war fought on American soil. The book presents a credible and well-researched depiction of the time period, and the types of characters that would inhabit it.

The book’s narrative is centrally carried forward by two principal characters: Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, as well as the occasional inclusion of their friend and sometimes-accomplice, the Reverend Everly Thomas. That these characters each seem to have some strange physical deformities seems to be besides the point, if nothing else than to emphasize their personal imperfections and the broader, even-stranger circumstances that they find themselves in. The structure brings to mind Kurosawa’s film Hidden Fortress, or George Lucas’ infinitely more popular adaptation, Star Wars, which uses two peripheral, comedic characters as the central vehicle to drive the story forward.

The ongoing dialogue of these two principal characters is interspersed with the entrance of other, minor characters with their own grievances and stories to tell, serve to provide further background on the religious and racial realities of the time, or simply comic relief. At select points in the story, Saunders cites real (or possibly imagined) “official” accounts of the real-life events surrounding the book’s setting – pulled from biographies, memoirs, and collections of letters written by various dignitaries and others within Lincoln’s orbit. Common among these accounts is the mystique surrounding Lincoln — the authors were entranced by Lincoln’s massive physical presence, his sad, yet straight-faced and serious demeanor, and his palpable depression following the death of his son. The mixed recollections and interpretations of the histories serve to remind the reader that even history is inherently subjecting, and Saunders’ fictionalized Lincoln is just as believable and deserve of consideration as his contemporaries’ accounts.

Incidentally, I initially tried “reading” this book via its audiobook production, which boasted a record-setting production cost and over 160 voice actors (enlisting Nick Offerman and David Sedaris as the Vollman and Bevins, with no shortage of star-power supporting cast: Don Cheadle, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, etc.), even enlisting some of my Penguin Random House co-workers as bit-playing participants. I did a particular second-take hearing the distinctive voice of a woman I work with regularly and i did not know was a participant, similar to the sensation of seeing a less-known celebrity in the “wild” – a where do I know this person from quality. However, I found the audio version to be difficult to follow and personally felt it inferior to the physical book. While I still consider myself to be an audiobook novice, I definitely think that books like this, which explore some experimental forms and are hardly straight-forward, are best left to the page, where sections can be more easily re-read and revisited.

Regardless, I really enjoyed my first entree into Saunders’ work and believe it to be a timeless work of American fiction, in the vein of Mark Twain, an especially worthy comparison considering the vast research and effort that Saunders underwent to faithfully recreate the diction and composition of the era, imbuing the book with language and misspellings characteristic of early American English. I look forward to working through his other major works, including Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Tenth of December, in the near future.

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