George Saunders’ 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted Lincoln in the Bardo is a striking, extraordinary assemblage of a story. Saunders’ first novel – until this point he has published only short stories – collates voices and quotes and histories and characters and references to build up the story of the loss of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie.
Tibetan Buddhists believe when someone dies they enter the bardo of the time of death, where they will either ascend towards nirvana or fall back to be born again into a new body. Waking life, dreams and meditation are all bardos as well: states of consciousness between other states of consciousness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide to be read to the newly dead during their journey through the bardo, a kind of a manual to assist them on their way.
Lincoln in the Bardo opens introducing Abraham Lincoln, his wife, children and home life through an assemblage series of direct quotes from histories, memoirs, letters and journals. Saunders quotes from these sources to assemble both an image of their life at this particular time, immediately before Willie Lincoln dies, but simultaneously brings these sources into doubt. Some recountings conflict, conclusions come to the opposite position; memory and storytelling and history are unreliable.
It is odd to read: constantly moving between styles, the end of each paragraph referencing the source. It is difficult to find a rhythm, and it is impossible to connect to a character when all you see of them is second hand, through sources you learn to doubt. But then something emerges, new voices are introduced that aren’t historical references but very particular, very individual characters. The narrative emerges out of the historical scene is set, in the graveyard, the night after Willie’s funeral. The cemetery is populated with a a crowd of rowdy sprits, souls who for one reason or another, have stayed away from the judgement that leads you to heaven or hell.
Reading is suddenly compulsive, beautiful: you are torn along with these totally insane and wondrous people. The structure of the book continues in this short paragraph way, moving rapidly from perspective to perspective, with a reference at the end on who that part was from, which detracts from flow but each voice is so unique, the revelation of details so sly and smart, everything is just so much more readable.
There are no quotes here to demonstrate what I am saying because it is impossible to extract a moment. It is all so complexly interwoven and contextually compelling that an excerpt does not make sense and does not do it justice. I doubted what I was reading until I appreciated what Saunders’ had set up through the utilisation of historical sources. It is a fantastic story told in a completely unique way with difference not for its own sake but to challenge the way we can be told and consume stories.
And the story is a beautiful one. No matter how we are told it, and the method gives us incredible insights that other narrative forms would struggle with, it is a touching and sometimes intense tale. A father loses his son and does not know how to morn: in this case the father just happens to be the President of the United States and the son is a spirit trapped in the bardo, between states.
I do plan on reading more of this year’s Man Booker shortlist, but based on the strength, originality and feeling of this one I would be surprised if it didn’t win. Saunders is funny and smart, he fully occupies each and every perspective he uses, and the story is a poignant one.