Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I'm afraid that this odd but acclaimed novel about a grieving father (namely, Abraham Lincoln) left me a bit cold.

All sorts of things appealed: the lively cast of miscreant ghosts; the mixing up of different historical sources to convey particular moments, the contradictions of the witnesses included; the general weird and morbid tone.

The ghosts are great fun, from all classes and backgrounds, each with their own story to tell (which is what sustains them, and keeps them from moving on). They're a lively dead, and it's a pleasure to be in their company - but is that enough?

Cynically, I can see why this won awards, such as the covetted Man Booker. It's made up of snippets from different sources - apparently real first-hand sources describing Lincoln and fictional ghosts who meet his son (the first-hand sources now long dead, so also ghosts). Often, the snippets are no more than a sentence, so there are few words to a page. The effect is that one races through the book. Imagine the delight of the burdened judge of an award, faced with mountains of volumes to get through! That, and the strange conceit of Lincoln's dead son being in a throng of strange ghosts, and the insights afforded into Lincoln himself, and other novels would seem hard work and boring.

Even more cynically, this might be a novel to appeal to people who don't really like reading novels. Clever, strange, apparently about something important - and quick to get through. It doesn't leave us with torturous questions to mull over long after, as other serious and acclaimed books often do.

For all I raced through it, I didn't think the plot sustained 341 pages and 108 chapters. It's a novella, really - perhaps even a short story. What actually happens? Well, spoilers, but...

The boy dies; Lincoln grieves and goes at night to the cemetery to look upon the body; he lingers and then leaves, determined to fight on in the Civil War. Meanwhile, the cemetery's ghosts, in trying to aid the boy, come to their own kinds of peace. But as you read it, there's a lot of, "Lincoln entered the tomb... The ghosts tell amusing, rude anecdotes about their lives... Lincoln had just entered the tomb..." Get on with it, I thought.

I think my disappointment might stem from having just read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, set in roughly the same period and roughly the same geographical area. That rattles along at speed, with something profound to say about America and history, and without saying it directly. Instead, this is too much of what Patricia Highsmith referred to, in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, as a gimmick novel.

There's also my own status as a grieving father, which I'm sure shadows my response. But this novel takes us to Lincoln at a key moment in his life: the awful death of his favourite son, and the publication of the casuality lists showing the brutal cost of the Civil War. The fundamental problem is that to make the encounter with the ghosts shape or influence what Lincoln then does next would be utterly crass, but not to do so makes the whole thing a bit pointless.

I liked the idea, I liked the characters in it, but couldn't shake a sense of disappointment.

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