Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel
I love George Saunders, and I’ll read anything he writes.
My review, in summary: he’s brilliant, a genius even—but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel which follows a stellar short story career, is more like an amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below; however, it failed to do what I personally like in a novel, which is for someone else’s story–besides mine!—to absorb me. That’s a lot to ask, but I often ask it. This explains my love of big, bulky stories like The Nix or The Goldfinch. Saunders offers fascinating ideas, brilliant collaging, and great sentences—but I wasn’t overcome, and I wanted to be. Did I step outside of myself and into the life of another, much like the Bardo “ghosts” step into the lives of the living? Am I closer to the human experience?
Let me quote my book-reviewing cohort at Snotty Literati, Lara Howard Smith. We’ve tangled before on Saunders. I loved Tenth of December; she did not. When our bookish friends began making a racket over the new novel, Lara grew strangely silent. I picked it up, and found myself unpleasantly up against that, um, “Fourth Wall” (see below).
I talked to Lara. She said, “I think he’s the Wes Anderson of books. Super high-brow. Only accessible to literary elites.”
But I think there’s something to my original assessment: an amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below. The entire time that we’re engaged in the act of reading (it’s a quick read), we’re well-aware of the distance between writer and reader, we’re well-aware of authorial finesse (there’s plenty of it), we’re well-aware of the Fourth Wall (not to be confused with Trump’s wall).
What is this Fourth Wall? It’s when the Artist “intrudes” consciously upon the real life of its audience. Basically, the artificiality of the artistic act is acknowledged; the artist “winks” at the audience; the suspension of disbelief is abolished. Examples abound: The characters in The Office give us a side glance. Lemony Snicket explains something. Ferris Bueller turns to us. Death, the narrator, addresses the audience in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
Is that what Saunders is doing? Maybe metafiction is a more useful term? A broken or intrusive fictional artifice draws attention to the act of storytelling? A story about story? I was always aware of narrative artifice and authorial control here.
But he’s a genius. One of my students quoted Arthur Schopenhauer when I lamented my lack of engagement. Alex Ozers(!) suggested that I wasn’t used to the form. “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Maybe I just didn’t see the target?
Consider the virtues, then.
Fascinating ideas. The story surrounds the Bardo, the Buddhist intermediate state between life and death. Lincoln’s son has died and his soul lingers in the Bardo with other souls who are not willing to move on to some kind of Judgment Day—because they don’t want to admit that their dead. Willie, Lincoln’s son, longs for his father. The main “ghosts” all have ties to the earth that prevent them from “giving up the ghost,” so to speak. Hans Vollman, a middle-aged guy who landed a young wife, was on the verge of consummating his marriage when he died in a freak accident. (Instead of carrying around shackles and chains, he is encumbered with an outrageous erection.) He doesn’t want to let go of life! Roger Bevins III, a young gay man in Civil War America, commits suicide—but changes his mind at the last minute. He wants to live! (He becomes hyper-aware of life, with heightened senses.) The Reverend Everly Thomas is afraid of death—and so he holds onto the misery of the Bardo. These circumstances, of course, lend themselves to philosophical profundities.
Besides the Reverend’s poignant thoughts on religiosity, there is the usual Saunders Comic Touch—demonstrated by two ghosts, a forgotten academic and a forgotten pickle manufacturer, who are spending their Bardo eternity by flattering each other. Professor Edmund Bloomer says, “At any rate, I thank you, from the heart, for acknowledging that I was the foremost thinker of my time. I feel some measure of redemption, having been at last recognized as the finest mind in my generation.” Lawrence T. Decroix, his companion, says, “Thank you so much, for saying my pickles were excellent. Thanks for saying that, of all the pickles being made in the nation at that time, mine were, by far, the best.” This is their hell.
There’s brilliant collaging. The novel is made up of dialogue, monologues, and real and fictitious historical snippets. Good luck in navigating what’s real and what’s not. If you’re a truth-monger, this might bug you! Saunders acknowledges two sources: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein and Twenty Days by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. and Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt. This mega-postmodern play on truth and history sent my head spinning. At times, Saunders offers commentary on unreliable narrative (different sources interpret the same thing differently). At times, the collaging adds layers to a story like never before.
But I’m so confused!
Finally, this is a book of fine writing. Roger Bevins sees vivid details: “a sleeping dog dream-kicking . . .”
Showing rather than telling is the rule. Thomas Havens was a “good” slave. He didn’t seek freedom; he rejoiced in his free-time (two hours on Wednesday afternoons and every third Sunday): “ . . . I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments. Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me the most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.”
Death, be not proud, indeed!
This book, culminating in the mysterious “matterlightblooming,” is wondrous on its most lovely pedestal.
We sit beneath the pedestal, however.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati. Her website is at jenniferspiegel.com.