I never allow myself to have too many ambitions about reading complete shortlists (or even longlists) for literary prizes, but I do quite like to know about them to then randomly stumble across one or another of the nominated books on my next library trip.
I’ve just talked about how much I like reading books I don’t really know anything about – it’s something I really miss, being a child in a library full of books I’d never heard of and checking them out based on description or even cover because what, really, did I have to lose?
So I went to my favourite library last week looking for a new audiobook to get lost in. I got four, but that’s a story for another day. The one that excited me by far the most, and the one I’m here to talk about, is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Apparently (and I only saw this after listening to it), this audiobook has in itself gotten quite a lot of attention because of its all-star-cast of 166 narrators (!), giving each source and character a distinct voice.
Lincoln in the Bardo is based on two main factual ideas: on the one hand the death of Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, amidst the American Civil War (which hands down, I know nothing about…) and the tale that he apparently spent at least one night in the graveyard grieving for his son; on the other hand the concept of “bardo” which originates in Buddhism, where it describes the transitional state between death and rebirth. Combining these, Saunders has concocted a tale of grief and spiritual existence after death, a tale of Abraham Lincoln not alone in the nightly graveyard, but rather surrounded by spirits unwilling to move on to the afterlife, while unable to communicate with the living – his son Willie one of them.
What makes the first novel of the acclaimed short story writer so special is the writing, which is unlike anything I have ever read. The story is told from different character’s points of view, in a way that reminisces of a play rather than a novel of changing narrators, with narration strands disrupting and correcting each other – a style that works remarkably in the audiobook form.
This basic narration style is disrupted by quotes from numerous historical sources, weaving a factual basis for the fabulist story unfolding in the cemetery.
Listening to this, very oddly, felt like a guilty pleasure for how much I loved it? Not something I expected when approaching (*takes on snotty literary critic voice*) a book nominated for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious book prizes in existence. But I actually think Saunders has managed to strike a fragile balance with Lincoln in the Bardo: experimental writing of (in my humble opinion) actual literary merit, which I wouldn’t mind writing an essay on, which at the same time is highly readable, at times even indulgent.
The style is unusual, of course, and takes a minute or two to get used to, with the author giving you no hints or orientation in the first few chapters as to what the hell is going on, and without formal introduction of any of the characters, but once you get it, I found it a beautiful way of combining source material, dialogue and stream of consciousness. The closest I could probably come to defining it is a collective stream of consciousness, with distinct voices and styles all coming together in one coherent story thread, albeit a multifaceted one.
The most obvious theme around which all else seems to center for me is letting go, be it Abraham Lincoln letting go of his lost son or the dead letting go of their existence on earth by acknowledging their own death. The book looks at how we take the legacy of departed loved ones on with us, which is why I think I might like it even more once I’m old enough to have an understanding of grief and losing someone (is it weird that I have an inofficial post-loss TBR in my mind? Like, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter? Nevermind.)
Saunders also quite cleverly builds this narrative into the historical background, seemingly building a firm foundation for his story by quoting several sources, just to immediately undermine his own efforts, making you question the reliability of contemporary accounts by having them contradict each other on questions as whether the moon shone one particular night, making you subsequently question all historical description and to some extent preparing you for the unreliability of subjective narrative voices.
He also touches on the pressures the raging war put onto the president, and paints a delicate emotional picture of losing your own son while daily receiving death tolls from the war front, complimented by the accounts of soldier’s mothers who talk about losing their sons to what they seem to coin Lincoln’s war.
I could go on for hours, but I think you get the picture. It’s a fantastically clever, tender and beautiful book which I didn’t expect to even read and ended up loving a lot. If you can get your hands on the audio narration especially, I’d say give it a go – just maybe have a look at the physical book first and make yourself familiar with how the text is laid out so you don’t get completely lost, as seems to happen to a lot of people…
That being said, I might get myself a print copy to reread at some point, because I’ve heard it’s a very different experience yet, and I’m so up for more time in the bardo.