The boy’s eyes flew open.
-roger bevins iii
Strange here, he said.
Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. Not really.
One gets used to it, said the Reverend.
If one belongs here, said Mr. Bevins.
Which you don’t, said the Reverand.
Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over the course of the night in which President Lincoln buries his beloved son, Willie. As Lincoln traverses the graveyard in his grief, the reader comes to know a myriad of souls inhabiting a second layer of the graveyard—those buried there but not yet moved on to what is next. As Lincoln’s story is told by an overlap of historical sources, the voices of the Bardo rise and fall over one another, setting out a shadowy world of pain, fear, and longing. As the night passes, the Bardo’s inhabitants come together as one—for as much as they fear the matterlightblooming phenomenon that heralds a soul’s departure from the Bardo, they know Willie, sweet, innocent Willie, does not belong in this third place.
The danger of high expectations
As with many other books, I came to Lincoln in the Bardo with exceedingly high expectations. It had been hyped by all of the snooty places I find good books—NPR, Time, The Atlantic, and my coworker Peter. While I’ve never read them, Saunders’s success with short stories made everyone go mad for his first novel before it was ever published. The cover flap uses words like “literary master” and “most original, transcendent moving work yet.”
It would likely have been impossible for any book to live up to the hype created for this one. This expectation colored my initial reaction to the book—having expected the highest highs, something less made me feel that it was awful. Having had more breathing room from the book and having flipped through it again preparing for this review, it is an excellent book–particularly in the writing if not the structure. It’s not a book I’m likely to forget anytime soon.
As to the structure, when I was younger, I used to dream up fake histories to insert into daydreams, thinking up books that blended the history with the action of my characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders has taken that structure that hasn’t worked in far less capable hands (including my own, chubby five year old hands) and somehow made it work.
To craft Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders takes excerpts from what a few quick Google searches appear to be actual historical sources and blends them together into a narrative. The narrative pieces themselves connect and read in some places like a conversation between historical sources. In the concept and on the written page, the effect is remarkable—I’m not sure Saunders tells any of his own narrative about Lincoln’s life outside of the graveyard with his own words (unless some of the sources aren’t real—admittedly, I didn’t check them all).
On audio, however, this format works significantly less well. The citations for the historical sources break up the flow of the audio so frequently but so quickly that they become confusing. After the first cite, the citation for an historical source simple becomes “Author, op. cit.” In the written book (as you can see to the right), it’s fine. The eye can skim past with little interruption. In the audio, a different voice reads the citations so that seemingly out of nowhere the voice of what sounds like a preternaturally calm flight attendant interrupts the story to say “Leech, op. cit” and before you can wrap you head around what she just said, the next reader is talking and reading the next quote. The voice is jarring enough that it can’t easily be ignored and, as a result, I’m sure I missed much of the first several chapters of the book.
And yet….the audio.
I would not, however, go so far as to say that this is a book that doesn’t work in audio. On the contrary, the alternating, non-historical sources—the voices Saunders actually wrote–make this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. An impressive cast of voices including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bradley Whitford, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Rainn Wilson, Keegan-Michael Key, Mary Karr, and Don Cheadle all voice various souls stuck in the Bardo with Willie Lincoln. It is in this conversation between these souls that the audiobook shines head and shoulders above the physical book. Almost ever voice seems perfectly chosen for its character, adding depth and dimension to the anguish and obsession experienced by those in the Bardo. Here too, where Saunders was able to stretch his creativity, the writing shines and there are moments like the quote above that made my exquisite-writing-loving-heart skip a beat.
Developing his cast of characters
Warning of a teeny, tiny spoiler that you find out fairly quickly in the book……
::look away now if you’re a spoiler-stickler::
One of the particularly creative choices Saunders made with the Bardo-ians, was to have the bodies of his Bardo inhabitants be reflective of what they were obsessed with at the moment of their deaths. Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman, was a gentleman who married a woman much younger than he. Rather than force himself on her, he let her slowly, slowly come to love him…unfortunately for him he died before they ever consummated their marriage. As a result, Vollman is obsessed with sex with his wife so his physical body is naked with a penis several feet long. Roger Bevins III, another character, having committed suicide but regretted it at the last moment, is many-eyed, many-nosed, and many-handed, obsessed with the sights, smells, and touch of things he can no longer experience. This choice on the part of Saunders is unlike anything I’ve seen and adds a dimension to his characters that is unexpected and, on the whole, well done.
Edgy for the sake of edge
There are, however, some choices that it seems Saunders made for no other reason than to be edgy. Vollman’s character is an excellent example. If he were naked and simply erect, this would have conveyed the same idea without Saunders repeatedly mentioning that his gigantic member is swollen and wagging around, three feet long. Similarly, a pivotal moment in the book is told from an outside perspective of four characters who are midst orgy. Telling of the event from outside makes sense and is well-done…but the characters being midst orgy feels overdone. Like it was difficult to work sex into a book about an eleven-year old boy grieving his father but, gosh darn it, you can’t have a book without sex. These random, unnecessary, adult details that serve no purpose but to shock are the result.
I’m not sure I’ve ever thought this about a book before now, but the best way to experience Lincoln in the Bardo, at least for the first several chapters, is to listen to the audiobook while following along with the physical book. The physical book alone loses the power the impressive cast puts behind Saunders’s characters while the audio alone is incredibly hard to follow until you’ve wrapped your head around Saunders’s structure of his historical quotes with citations. Because of the odd structure, this isn’t a book I would recommend for anyone that doesn’t like books that aren’t a little frustrating—for Lincoln in the Bardo shows its genius when you push past the confusion and surrender to experiencing Saudners’s mad world-between-worlds.
Published February 14, 2017 by Random House (@randomhouse)
Author: George Saunders
Date read: May 18, 2017
Rating: 3 Stars upon initial listen, 4 Stars as I sat with the book