I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough… The more one reads the more one sees we have to read. – John Adams
DIANE DE BEER
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House):
If you’re familiar with the short story wizard, you will not want to miss his first foray into novel territory.
As is to be expected, this master of imagination and writing has thoroughly thought through his first outing and how to approach it. He does this without the attempt feeling too grueling, because he has a story to tell that’s so smart and so unique, his followers won’t be disappointed. Probably more than anyone, Saunders would have felt the weight of what he was trying to do more than anyone else.
If you have ever listened to an interview with this writer, you will know that he has an exceptional mind, thinks about life in an extraordinary fashion and seems to make interesting choices on whatever catches his fancy – from marrying to writing.
In this instance the title refers to the Lincoln you’re thinking of and it is his son Willie who is trapped in the bardo (the state of limbo which is how the Tibetans refer to this intermediate state between death and moving on). He is the adored 11-year-old son of the man known as the Civil War president who is in there fighting a losing battle with typhoid fever.
His parents are hosting a lavish banquet when Willie dies and his body is taken to Oak Hill Cemetery where he is laid to rest in a marble crypt.
What ensues then is the magnificence of the Saunders mind. He saw a snippet that the president had at least twice visited the crypt at night where he sat and mourned over the body of his cherished son, and this sent this limitless imagination a wandering.
The cemetery is occupied by spirits who, it becomes clear in the reading, don’t want to move on and become the narrative as they tell the story of the father and the young boy by also dwelling on their own state of limbo.
The novel unfolds through their speeches, passing mainly between three vessels consisting of a young gay man who killed himself after his lover rejected him; an ageing reverend; and a printer who was killed in an accident before he and his young wife could consummate their marriage, an event that was on the verge of happening following many years of marital friendship and that’s all.
Willie, like all the children, is expected to pass on quite swiftly but because of his father’s visits, he is reluctant to leave which could mean that he could become trapped in a terrible tangle of almost demonic growth.
The three voices as well as those of contemporaries of Lincoln – whose quotes are used throughout to tell a particular story – make this a magically compelling reading. It’s like seeing a novel, so visual is the Saunders narrative, but you have to keep your mind sharp to keep up with the conversation and the people and events being described.
It’s fascinating and not unexpectedly unlike anything you have ever read which makes it hugely exciting. It’s the kind of book that you should just go with and not worry too much if you’re not quite sure what is happening and why. It does start to make sense as you go on and because of the writing, you can simply wallow in the Saunders literary genius, his way of telling the story and the words and language he picks to convey a certain feeling or mood or describe a rascal or a love affair between an unlikely couple. That’s just the way he tells stories.
The Lincolns in fact don’t even feature on the foreground although it is a story to explain certain things about memory, how people see and view things and how it loses in translation or from which perspective it unfolds.
With memory such a big thing at the moment, it makes you think about history and how we learn things – inadequately – because it came almost all of the time from a white male perspective. Nothing wrong with that perspective as long as it is supplemented and supported with a wide range of ideas and views to cover all the tracks and prejudices that might reside with a particular group.
Exciting times we live in as perspectives shift and trust Saunders to capture this particular mood change that is causing such upheaval all around the world we live in.