Wednesday, August 15, 2018

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: A Book Review

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While George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was a critical success, I struggled to fully appreciate and enjoy this text with the same esteem. Set around the death of Willie Lincoln and his ghost’s quest to either stay in the Bardo or move on, the novel effectively and innovatively invokes an experimental style that blends fact and fiction through a rapid flow of interviews. The plot itself is rather thin—Abraham visits his son’s body, holds, and mourns over it, while Willie struggles to come to grips with his death and placement in the spirit world. Around him swirl myriad ghosts chronicling their past, their present, and rooting for Willie to be Willie. A single night passes and the ghosts help determine the fate of a child died too young.

Perhaps it is here that the novel fails to hold me: I struggled to first care about these other specters and then to full differentiate between them in a meaningful and discernable way. Yes, some of their stories are interesting and some of the Civil War bleed over is as well, but much of the text seems stuck in neutral. While the experiment might be a success, the craft outweighs the substance in my mind, and I often struggled to plow on and find purpose in the meandering prose. Ghost here, story there, none of it was gripping in a traditional sense, which given the style is understandable, but it failed to fully gel together in my mind. That said, Saunders still flashes as a talented writer, and obviously it worked for a great many, even if I was languishing in the bardo.

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