‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders (2017) – 343 pages
Like many other readers I have been a great fan of the short stories of George Saunders. His short fiction is wildly original and wickedly funny. Now Saunders has released his first novel to universal praise.
Not quite universal praise. Keep reading.
Usually I try to avoid fiction where Abraham Lincoln is a major character, because he is always portrayed as an overly familiar depressive Gloomy Gus of a character, and ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is no exception in its portrayal. This is especially true here, because the novel is about the death of his 11 year old son, Willy. As for Mrs. Mary Lincoln, she is not really a character in the novel, because as a historical note conveniently points out, “Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother.” – ‘A Mother’s Trial: Mary Lincoln and the Civil War’ by Jayne Coster.
As for the little boy Willy, yes, it is sad that this little boy has died, but as another historical note again conveniently points out, the casualty figures for the battle of Fort Donelson, the first really bloody battle of the Civil War with casualties in the thousands, had just been published, so a lot of families were suffering the loss of sons. Willy is rather a stock little boy character even when he is one of the undead.
Most of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ takes place in the cemetery where Willy is to be buried. The “bardo” is the transitional state between life and death in the Tibetan Buddhist religion. Throughout the novel we hear the voices of many of these undead ghosts. They call their coffins ‘sick boxes’, because they are still transitioning between life and death. I suppose the voices of all these undead function as a Greek chorus would function in a Greeks tragedy.
As for all these ghosts, including the two main ones Mr. Vollman and Mr. Bevins, their presence grew tiresome for this reader rather rapidly. Saunders does not give us readers any reason to care about these ghostly figures, and this reader did not care for them. They weren’t particularly funny. The “disparate voices” schtick works better in a short story than in a long novel.
Throughout the novel there are short quotes from real historical accounts which ground this story that is always threatening to fly out of control off into the wind by these cemetery voices. It is not a good thing for a novel when the most interesting parts of it are all the factual little tidbits scattered in the text.
The audiobook for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ advertises a cast of 166 different people doing the voices for the book. I must point out that all these different voices are not necessarily a positive feature for the reader/listener. There are just too many characters to care about. With so many different voices, it is very difficult to attend to any particular character or characters. Frequently the symphony becomes a discordant cacophony.
Grade : C