The originality of the structure of Lincoln in the Bardo immediately sets George Saunders’ debut novel apart. It’s composed of stacked lists of quotations attributed to the souls occupying Oak Hills cemetery in the Georgetown section of our nation’s capitol in 1862; to the President at the time, Abraham Lincoln, and to his son, Willie, recently deceased; and to the night watchman and manager of the cemetery, neighbors, historical figures and eyewitnesses to the events of the time.
I plunged into this work thinking these crazy quotes would continue for a few pages and then return to a normal third or first person narrative. Not only did they not, the form became its own sort of thing with hilarity and piety. The quotations interact, finish one another’s sentiments.
Saunders’ approach from his short stories in Pastoralia, where letters and notes and faxes between characters move plot and create conflicts, is here in fuller effect. This “debut novel” thus actually resides somewhere between the novella and the norm of long-form fiction. Almost as if Saunders still isn’t ready to write one of those “novel” things.
It was initially off-putting because pretty quickly quotes from real historical sources reside in equanimity with a tumbling invention of the thoughts of the dead.
The first time several quotations are used to describe the same person and there are wide disparities implying unreliable reportage, forcing the reader to flip back-and-forth to separate quotes from actual historical texts from made-up ones, it’s a hilarious reminder that we’re in a novel, and it doesn’t matter.
Fiction and Non-fiction swim together.
In the mid-90’s, in San Francisco, it was the fashion among serious young (read: unpublished) writers like me to read the postmodern fiction of structuralists like Harry Matthews, the only American member of the Oulipo, with great love. The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle bears consideration in advance of talking about Saunders as constructionist.
There is a confidence and ease I love about George Saunders. He really is in command of his craft. With this form, within a matter of a few chapters, you are in his world. If a person were to come over to you and look over your shoulder while you’re reading this novel, it would look to them like insane gibberish.
Saunders’ effort is totally original but like Matthews and the Oulipo before him, uses structure to train you into his narrative – isolating you from being able to “tell” this book.
It was immediately apparent an audio book of this work is basically impossible without dozens of actors and a unique method for attribution, audibly. It’s another thing, a book.
I wonder how the e-versions look/read?
Once aboard, the form establishes a rhythm and momentum that sends this richly imagined exploration of death, life and loss, forward with vigor.
The historical facts surrounding the 16th President and the death of his son at the White House and the Civil War that raged with the nation’s history in the balance are the nest in which Saunders crafts a re-imagining of purgatory. He does so to examine our sense of purpose and meaning – in life and after death.
But rather than a staid, dusty exploration of our historical understanding of the deaths of the time, Saunders populates his work with real people – everyday people who lived and died normal and un-extraordinary lives, filled with sins and loves and hates and pettiness. It is part of his charm in the short form that his characters are easily believable and admirable for their flawed, utterly human qualities. They are our guides to the mind of our beloved Lincoln, and nation.
Saunders’ exceptional understanding of people and compassion for their desires, dreams and regrets is again on display as this diverse collection of souls from many walks of life reveal themselves and the stories of their lives.
The population of the cemetery includes slaves but the book fails to really plunge into the national sin. I read a review that felt the opposite, that the recrimination and oppression of the slaves in the cemetery by the whites was clearcut and evocative, giving voice to the horror, but it was disappointing to me.
As I reflect on the role the slaves do play, it is once again as from a position of rectitude, to be able to look back at slavery and racism to contain it in the national narrative.
There are some serious and violent points of intersection between the black and white population of the cemetery and one particularly poignant one never ends, an eternal struggle. But I can’t help but feel this could have been developed. Slaves and masters in the same cemetery, with only the masters in marked graves, seems a rare territory and an opportunity to explore racism more deeply.
The conceit does fruit into a tangential reference into Lincoln’s conclusions on the matter, conclusions that led to years of bloody war over ending slavery. This book isn’t about that though, nor about the civil war.
It seems to be about how we, all of us, think of ourselves and our lives more than Lincoln or anyone else in 1862 does. It seems to be about how we think of our lives in advance of, and even after, death – whether it’s the death of someone we know or ourselves. In that, Lincoln in the Bardo succeeds with sensitivity and compassion.
Saunders understands un-requite, failure, desperation and the longing we all feel. He also knows how to craft this understanding into an incredibly direct narrative. It’s amazing.
Apparently he has said about his process that the narrative tells him how long it is to be, what it is to be. In this case it became something wondrous.
I am left with so much after this novel. I find I cannot describe it very well. It’s like a magician’s deception. What you find within is worth much more than the conceit.
It is clear though, the magician knows his audience inside and out.