I don’t ever remember making this much of an effort to read a book before. The first time I picked up George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln on the Bardo, I was halfway through the book when I stopped reading after realizing that I just wasn’t getting a complete picture and was too confused to continue any further. I was also having difficulty categorizing this avant garde piece. Not magical realism despite the graveyard setting with the apparitions moving the plot forward, nor a horror story even though the ghostly characters, whose features reflect the moment of their death, come with a complete set of questionable behaviors, but a tale without any narration, purely quotes from both the living and the dead – a dramatic farce, of sorts, without any stage directions, depicting events through the “dialogue” as the players disclose their personal sagas.
The “plot” begins at the White House where Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln are hosting a gala, feting the community with all manner of delicacies, while upstairs their son Willie, who has contracted Typhoid, lies dying instead of being on the mend as the doctor had promised. The death of their beloved son leaves not only the Lincolns bereft, but also touches the hearts of all those who knew the young lad. While the community mourns along with the President, many castigate the parents for continuing with the celebration at such a time. All this is explained through quotes from various publications and diaries depicting the event, with numerous contradictions about the details – there was a full moon, the moon was new, it was a cloudy night, the sky was clear, etc. The funeral was well attended and little Willie was laid to rest in a borrowed Crypt. Lincoln, unable to accept the loss of his son, visits the graveyard, removing the deceased boy from his casket to hug and caresss the lifeless form, promising to return. All this is based on true events.
Next comes Saunders extrapolation of the dead who have not gone into the beyond, remaining in the “Bardo”, a sort of holding center. The spirits watch this aberration of behavior, wondering. Willie wants to remain in the graveyard awaiting his father’s promised return, but the three main characters, Roger Blevins III (suicide victim) Hans Vollman (possible heart attack), Rev Everly Thomas (appalled at his future awaited fate) urge him on to the afterlife. Young ones are not to stay behind, although others have chosen to reject this option, not trusting the beyond. Each lost soul wants to share their particular tale of death with the lad, in the hopes that his luck might touch them as well, with an undertone that Willie might yet return to his old life through the power of his father. Never before has anyone touched, let alone hugged, a body after being laid to rest. It is this unusual feat which draws everyone close to the boy. As the story unfolds the reader is exposed to the idiosyncrasies of the graveyard where the souls still exist, returning to their “sick boxes” each day, even as their bodies decay, resisting the call from those who try to trick them into leaving the mortal realm.
This extremely confusing book needs some explanations before the reader opens the first page. With so many characters, it is difficult to follow so I decided to give the audiotape a try. Still, with a multitude of voices, (166, including the numerous quotes, many from real sources), I needed to simultaneously read the book as I listened to get the gist of the story. Only then could I decipher what was actually happening.
I must say that deciding to use this large number of separate narrators to tell the tale was a moment of brilliance. While some of the readers are unknown, many are A list actors with big names such as Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Don Cheadle, and even the author, George Saunders, taking part. Nick and David, portraying the main characters, did a phenomenal job, with their interpretations bringing the graveyard to life. While Saunders had a credible performance, he could not compete with the other two actors who definitely earned their pay. The others taking on smaller roles were delightful, especially Bill Hader and Megan Mullally portraying foul mouthed white trash who lived in the black community, allowing some discourse on the slavery issue. As I followed along with the text, the words came alive in a way my mind could never imagine, especially some heart felt sections when the true plights of the “victims” are finally revealed.
So, while still a bizarre book, I finally was able to finish and appreciate the author’s intent, with the last quarter of the book providing some hope and inspiration about life beyond the grave, although there are still a myriad of questions which I would like the author to answer. Since this book utilizes an unusual format to advance the plot, It was a shock to hear Lincoln on the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Award, (especially considering an American won last year as well). I wonder how many other readers will take the time necessary to appreciate this offbeat book and Saunders’ unique approach to literature.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.