Charles Harries

| Books

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

Published 2017 368 pages

After wrestling Pynchon's Bleeding Edge over the course of like two months, I was in for a bit of a peaceful read, and Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, did not disappoint.

As a quick introduction, and without spoiling too much, the "Lincoln" in the bardo (a sort of purgatory named after the Tibetan realm between rebirths) is actually Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham, who died of typhoid fever as a child. The book is mostly made up of short epistolary-type snippets written from the perspective of some 150 characters or so, telling out a continuous story over the course of one night at Oak Hill Cemetery. The story is also interspersed with real quotations from a huge variety of sources acquainted with the Lincolns around the time of Willie's death. This format is a little jarring for the first few pages but you get the hang of it quickly, and it's an effective device for telling a story with relatively little straight action but very significant depth of feeling.

Much of the popular critical response to the book (i.e. on Goodreads) is divided between folks who didn't like the formal structure (multiple narrators + quotes) and lack of action; and a (much larger) contigent who were moved by the straight-faced compassion that makes up the emotional core of the story. I'm of the latter camp. I've written before about how I like Saunders's characters who, despite hardship, delusion, and damn bad luck, fight on for a cause; this book is relatively heavier on this, and lighter on the downtrodden characters as punchlines.

The book's got fantastic colour as well: the characters have a sort of morose, charming, grotesque Tim-Burton-ish aspect about them, and each new character introduced is more outlandish than the last, without being extravagant. I don't know how Saunders came up with them—nor from where he pulled the series of lamentable scenes that befall children who hang around too long in the bardo. I think that the pitifulness of their plights'd be a bit excessive if it weren't also, in a wry kind of way, a little funny.

Lincoln in general is, I'd say, a little funny. It's certainly not a comedy (even a black comedy) in the way that CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was comedic—but it's just funny enough to remind you who wrote it.

I think it's a little facile to say that it's a book that Makes You Think About the Big Questions, but books about existence after death always make me sort of second-guess how I think about what will happen when I die (that is, when I think about it). I wouldn't say that it changed my perspective or anything—I'm not unfamiliar with the concept of purgatory—but it was something to think about, and I enjoyed the hazy way it made me uncertain about myself. I like books like that.

Yeah overall very good book, very easy to read (in a different kinda way), very easy to recommend.