Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

"Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Having not been dazzled by his short stories I didn't rush to read this despite the awards it's been receiving. When I was given this book for Xmas I thought I'd give it a go.

Initially there's a conversation between various named people, who turn out to be dead, in Limbo (rather than their names appearing before what they say - as in a screenplay - they appear after). The spirit world is a dynamic place - "She rapidly transmuted into the fallen bridge, the vulture, the large dog, the terrible hag gorging on black cake, the stand of flood-ravaged corn, the umbrella ripped open by a wind we could not feel" (p.37)

Back in the land of the living a meal put on by Lincoln is described using only quotes from books - "Drunken men examined paintings rather too intensely" (p.17). Section V is all about the moon at the party - quotes again. There's no master narrator.

Willie Lincoln (10 years old) dies, joins the spirits. The spirits are shocked when his father appears, lifting Willie's body from the tomb. Willie becomes a minor celebrity. Limbo bursts into beauty when the angels arrive to take people away (when people move on there's a "familiar yet always bone-chilling fire-sound of the matterlightblooming phenomenon"). The angels (or are they devils?) appear in a different guise to each spirit. Willie resists them because he wants to see his father again. The spirits think this is a bad idea. They track down Lincoln hoping to influence him (though they doubt if it's possible). On p.152 we return to quoted memoirs etc, to find out how Lincoln's coping with life's realities. Section LXII has quotes about Lincoln's appearance - blue eyes, grey eyes; brown hair, black hair; ugly, handsome.

When the spirits gather they start exchanging stories about their deaths, their corpses. They talk about why they're still in Limbo (some don't know) and discuss the connections between the spirit world and reality. By overlapping their bodies with those of the living they can sense the thoughts of the living, and of each other. They try in unison to encourage the boy to leave Limbo. And he does, along with some others caught up in the frenzy. Before they go, they shape-change through a sequence of selves - who they had been, who they could have become.

It's roughly 340 pages long with lots of white space. For example, here (minus the attributions) is all of p.159 - "Sad/ Very sad. Especially given what we knew./ His boy was not "In some bright place, free of suffering."/ No. / Not "resplendent in a new mode of being."/ Au contraire./ Above us, an errant breeze loosened many storm-broken branches./ Which fell to the earth at various distances". In section LX the layout changes - there's reported speech, so the dialogue on p.185 is far more compact. That type of layout occasionally returns.

As luck would have it, I've recently read The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, which also features Limbo, and spirits not wanting to move on. It has more Real World sections than this book has, more humour, and more cryogenics.

Other reviews

  • Hari Kunzru (Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a blend of Victorian gothic with one of the more sfx-heavy horror franchises. ... One of the novel’s conceits is that by occupying the same space, the spirits can experience a dissolution of interpersonal boundaries, understanding and feeling sympathy for each other in a mystical way. It is hard to be specific without spoiling the plot, but Saunders uses this device to imply a cause for Lincoln’s later signing of the emancipation proclamation, a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche. This is a small quibble. Lincoln in the Bardo is a performance of great formal daring.)
  • Anthony Cummins (Saunders gives us a barrel-load of his typically bizarre conceits, but to what end? Willie's fate after death is plainly meant to be the focus, but the jeopardies on offer are drama-drainingly opaque and finnicky to the point of equivalence)
  • John Self (Much of Saunders’s work shows how people use words to obscure rather than explain, and his language is typically compact and coded as a result. In Lincoln in the Bardo people say what they mean, so, despite the highly original conceit, this is the most straightforward fiction he has written. Its looseness means it is easy to read, but it feels attenuated, at 350 pages less weighty than the best of his stories. Leave it to George Saunders always to surprise us, showing us here that a book can be at the same time a delight and something of a disappointment.)
  • Goodreads

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    As I understand it, Limbo is a Catholic concept for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Back on earth, I enjoyed last week's mud wrestling between Rebecca Watts and Hollie McNish. I am on the side of the 'populists', if only because my own poetry has become rather popular on the internet recently.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish