This is a book composed of fragments, woven together from many voices, some real, some invented (I wasn’t always sure which were which, but it doesn’t really matter). My thoughts about it are going to be fragmented too.
I blasted through Lincoln in the Bardo in two days. Its voices would have rewarded lingering, I think, but immersing myself in them for a few hours straight worked well too.
I’m not sure the ideas of the novel would have held up to slower reading. I’m not sure its ideas are the point. Even racing through, I felt that Saunders’ picture of the afterlife was infused with clichés. The bardo is a liminal state between life and death. Here’s Hari Kunzru’s description in his review:
Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all “bardos”, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body.
Saunders combines this idea with elements of Christian purgatory. Is it fair to expect anyone to come up with new ideas about life and death and loss? Probably not. The vibrant voices Saunders invents often revivify the clichés, the intensity of their desires (however gross they sometimes are) and mourning are the strength of the book.
I wondered if I were alone in feeling this way about a book that has gotten so many raves, but Caleb Crain dings it for sentimentality (and sadism), and even Kunzru believes the novel stumbles at the end. I can be sentimental myself, so I didn’t really mind this, but I think the book is stronger in its parts than in its whole. Its theology, or eschatology, isn’t really coherent, except for the insistence on letting go. I suspect that isn’t where Saunders’ main interest lay.
My favorite character, I think, was Roger Bevins, whose narrative often veers off into cataloguing the richness of the world he’s trying to deny he’s left:
such as, for example, a sleeping dog dream-kicking in a tree-shade triangle; a sugar pyramid upon a blackwood tabletop being rearranged grain-by-grain by an indiscernible draft; a cloud passing ship-like above a rounded green hill, atop which a line of colored shirts energetically dance in the wind, while down below in the town, a purple-blue day unfolds (the muse of spring incarnate), each moist-grassed, flower-pierced yard gone positively mad with–
It’s just as well his buddy Vollman reins in the sentimentality at this point.
Many of the desires that bind Saunders’ spirits to the world are far pettier and cruder–the man fixated on raping his slaves is particularly unpleasant. I wouldn’t say Saunders has compassion for all these desires, or that he equates them, exactly, but all of them are human, and all should be renounced so these characters can move on to where they’re supposed to go. Whether Willie Lincoln and the others will manage that is the question that gives the book its narrative drive.
I found the voices of the few Black spirits (all of whom had been enslaved in life) the least convincing, and that’s too bad. It’s part of a larger weakness of the book, which is that the connection between Lincoln’s private tragedy and the national tragedy of the Civil War, the scale of which was increasing at the time of Willie Lincoln’s death, is sentimentalized and underdeveloped. There didn’t seem to be a compelling reason for Saunders to tie this book to the Lincolns and to include historical voices among the fictional ones.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find this book on the Man Booker shortlist, and although I’m going to predict it won’t win that, I bet it will win some prizes. And I’m OK with that. There’s a lot to admire in this polyphonic spree of a novel, despite the flaws.
One down! I’ve got three more to pick up from the library this afternoon or tomorrow. I might actually make a decent dent in this Booker project.