I’m willing to admit that I haven’t read nearly enough of George Saunders’ work other than a couple of short stories and fond memories of his novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. But with all the advance talk about his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I was more than willing to board the anticipation train. Early praise for the book, including a couple of fascinating interviews with Saunders only heightened my excitement.
You know where this is going. Contrary to the promises made by the back cover blurb I never found Lincoln In The Bardo captivating. It left me cold.
The subject matter, though, is not to blame. To open his novelist account Saunders settles on Abe Lincoln. Given the many biographies, movies, and fictional accounts, including that time he was a vampire hunter, a novel about the 16th President of the United States of America seems a conventional choice for someone famous for his askew take on the world. And yet there’s nothing straightforward in Saunder’s approach. For one, he makes the smart decision of limiting his focus to a single event in Lincoln’s life – the death of his son Willie. And rather than provide a fictional but historically factual account of the night Willie died and the controversy that came after – the Lincoln’s were holding a soirée as their son succumbed to fever – Saunders employs a Greek-chorus of ghosts and a collage of excerpts from non-fiction books detailing the tragedy to tell the story. It’s bold, ambitious and George Saunders through and through. And it might have worked if I hadn’t found the ghosts so fucking irritating.
Although numerous spectres get an opportunity to speak throughout the course of the narrative, most of the talking is limited to three ghosts – a Mr Vollman, Mr Bevins and the Reverend – who have come across the recently departed soul of Willie Lincoln. In their attempts to help Willie communicate with his father, who on the first night following his son’s death sits and grieves in the marble crypt where Willie is laid to rest, their constant wittering and general banality undercuts the significance of the moment. It’s meant to be funny, their circular logic, their bitching about the other ghosts, the fact that Vollman and Bevins can’t stand the Reverend, and yet rather than elicit a chuckle it becomes repetitive and tedious. The other ghosts that pop in and out of the story, other than the odd exception, fare no better. They are as teeth-gritting annoying as Vollman and Bevins. The only interesting aspect to Vollman and Bevin’s dialogue, other than their honest desire to help Willie, is their inability to grasp that they’re dead. This is aligned with the metaphysics of the ‘Bardo’, a Tibetan tradition similar to the Christian notion of limbo and the Jewish concept of Gehinom.
And yet this is still a book by George Saunders and while his ghosts – as characters – did bugger all for me there is still some scintillating writing on display. We discover that the Bardo does not discriminate, that it is a repository of souls for all genders and races. And while the white souls keep their distance from those ghosts of colour, the appearance of Willie attracts spirits from all across the Bardo. The point of view shifts from Bevin and Vollman (thank God) and instead we hear the painful thoughts of a slave Litzie Wright. I know it’s bad form to quote large chunks of a book, but I wouldn’t dare fiddle with or edit this astonishing piece of writing:
What was done to her was done to her many times, by many. What was done to her could not be resisted, was not resisted, sometimes was resisted, which resulted, sometimes, in her being sent away to some far worse place, other times in that resistance simply being forcibly overcome (by fist, knee, board-strike, etc.). What was done to her was done and done. Or just done once. What was done to her affected her not at all, affected her very much, drove her to the nervous shakes, drove her to hateful speech, drove her to leap off the Cedar Creek Bridge, drove her to this obstinate silence. What was done to her was done by big men, small men, boss men, men who happened to be passing the field in which she worked, the teen sons of the boss man or of the men who happened to be passing, a trio of men on a bender who spilled out of the house and, just before departing, saw her there chopping wood. What was done to her was done on a regular schedule, like some sort of sinister church-going; was done to her at random times; was never done at all, never once, but only constantly threatened: looming and sanctioned; what was done to her was straightforward missionary fucking; what was done to her was anal fucking (when the poor dear had never even heard of such a thing); what was done to her were small sick things (to the accompaniment of harsh words from stunted country men who would never have dreamed of doing such things to a woman of their own race), done to her as if no one else were there, only him, the man doing it, she nothing more than a (warm, silent) wax figure; what was done to her was: whatever anyone wished to do, and even if someone wished only slightly to do something to her, well, one could do it, it could be done, one did it, it was done, it was done and done.
I wanted to love Lincoln in the Bardo but we never saw eye to eye. And yet, for all my frustrations with the novel, there was always a nugget of brilliant prose that kept me going. I might have been reading a novel but I was regularly reminded that Saunders is a master of the short form.