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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron
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Kamila Shamsie
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present
Howard Zinn

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo is all about structure. It's sold as a novel, but if publishers could make money from the selling of scripts, you know it would've been sold as such. It alternates between snippets of “historical” quotations and dialogue. Some readers will find this clever. Others will find it distracting. Either way, it's the one thing most readers will likely first recall anytime they think about this story.

George Saunders' latest is also known for its huge cast of characters. Despite having a cast of hundreds, this is really the narrative of Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. Reverend Thomas apparently had considerable “page time” as well, but I barely remember him as a character. Someone remind me, what was significant about Thomas? So Vollman and Bevins—that's where the bulk of the story is. Of course the story is in many ways about Abraham Lincoln.

Given its structure, the book has a rather fragmented feel, and this can require some adjusting for the reader. Eventually, I got used to it and it was fine. What bothered me, however, was why the dialogue of some characters was spoken by others. For instance, in one passage where Bevins, Vollman, and Thomas are present, Vollman says, “Strange here, he said. Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. … One gets used to it, said the Reverend. …” It goes on. That's all Vollman. This sort of exchange happens repeatedly. It really threw me and I could find no consistency as to why one character is speaking for another. In a story where dialogue is everything, why put words into the mouths of others? Unless what seems to be dialogue is not truly dialogue, but is merely the written word. So all these “ghosts” are collaborating on a book together? If so, it's a huge clusterfuck.

Honestly, I don't know exactly how I feel about this book days after finishing it. Initially, I sort of liked it, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am. There are interesting stories within the larger story. And I really liked the historical perspective. While some of the quotations are author-invented, they are mixed with enough factual quotes to paint a fairly accurate portrait of Lincoln and his presidency at the time of Willie's death. Opinions at the time were ones of both disdain and adoration. Not at all different from our modern political leanings, but it does give an entirely different perspective of the Lincoln presidency than most modern accounts. Also, in a book about dead people conversing, you'd think there might be more retrospection or insight to the afterlife. Instead, we have characters who pretty much are the same as they were when they were alive, all their defects on full display in complete ignorance.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strong book in that it takes an original idea, shows ample research, and presents these in a way that is unique and certainly a selling point for some readers. It's also a book that's not going to work for everyone. I'm on the fence about it overall, though I do respect the effort.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
This one might go on to the shortlist. But I think it has as good of a chance of not going. I think it'll sort of depend on whether some of the titles I haven't gotten around to yet—particularly Reservoir 13 and Elmet—are stronger contenders. Even if it makes the shortlist, I'll be surprised if it takes the Prize.