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Monday, September 18, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders


Book Review
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
by George Saunders

  So here I am, more or less caught up with contemporary fiction.  The 1001 Books Project originally ended in 2006, so "the present" means the period between then and 2017.  Reviews of contemporary books will focus on their potential for canonical status, with the understanding that it is unknowable whether I am correct or not.   Unfortunately, the single best indicator would seem to be those books that either win major literary prizes or are nominated for such.  This criterion will take into account the sales record of each title, since simply looking at the best seller for canon candidates (while efficient) is simply too depressing to contemplate.

  Lincoln in the Bardo is the second 2017 book I've read in this category- the first being Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  Both books were selected based on their low odds on the Ladbrook's table for Booker Prize shortlist nominees.  Lincoln in the Bardo DID make the short list, The Underground Railroad did not.   Lincoln in the Bardo also has the top odds to win the prize- currently at 2/1.  Author  George Saunders is well known as a short-story writer and an essayist- I actually saw him speak last year in Los Angeles because my girlfriend is a fan and I left saying, "Well, he should write a novel." (He alluded to the fact that he was doing so during his talk.)

   So here is that novel, and yes, he did do an amazing job writing his first novel, with critical plaudits and an appearance at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.   It is a very appealing package: First time novel by a known quantity, combines historical fiction and the supernatural, popular United States President (Abraham Lincoln) appears as a major character (though not the Lincoln of the title.) AND- AND- it's is very, very easy to read, written in a format where each statement is written in citation format, whether or not it takes the form of actual dialogue or a quote from a historic text about the Lincoln administration.

  The Bardo of the title refers to the Tibetan spiritual concept which roughly equates to "purgatory"- neither heaven nor hell but a kind of supernatural waiting room, where unresolved issues may cause spirits to linger in the corporeal world as spirits, their issues reflected in their "physical" demeanor.  The Lincoln of the title is the President's son, William "Willie" Lincoln.  He died at the very beginning of the Civil War, and the story is "based" on two subsequent visits that the President made to Willie's tomb.

  Saunders manages to pack an astonishing number of voices into the 300 pages- over 100 by most accounts.  The other voices are other left behind spirits, and each of them adds some value to Saunders vision of Civil War era America. The grave yard in which Willie is laid to rest stands next to a paupers grave where African-Americans and vagrants were unceremoniously dumped, and thus Saunders is able to inject more social concern into a novel about ghosts and Abraham Lincoln than one might initially consider possible.

  It is this extra level of plot- the white graveyard next to the black graveyard, which I think really pushes Bardo into canonical territory.  Also, the fact that is both clearly a work of "experimental" fiction AND fast/easy to read and understand- that is a rare quality, and a canonical quality.   I think, weighing against it is the fact that it lacks the "weight" that often marks a canonical novel.  The technique of writing an entire book as a series of quotes from other sources detracts from the over-all impact, and may directly alienate less serious readers- a key component of the audience for a newly canonical text.

   Surely, the winning or losing of the Booker Prize will be a huge factor. The prize, like the winnowing of the long list to a short list is notoriously unpredictable, but with 2/1 odds, Lincoln in the Bardo is the odds on favorite.

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