Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna

Tenth of December – George Saunders

So I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but wow… It was good. I think. I’m pretty sure. Yeah.

What drew me to this book was the universal praise it has received. It seems that everyone from Zadie Smith to David Foster Wallace considers Saunders to be some sort of literary god. Even the New York Times (which does not speak in absolute terms very often) has called Tenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year”. My final verdict: the hype is totally deserved.

This book is first and foremost a collection of short stories, each one presenting a different vision of a failing America. Although this sounds very gloomy, this collection is surprisingly charming and the stories all have a lot of heart. In one story, a family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; in another, Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of Darkenfloxx™ in some unusual drug trials. While each story is remarkably different, they are all distinctly Saundersian – wryly hilarious, dark, and satirical. None of the protagonists are particularly successful. Most of them aren’t even that likable. But they are oh so wonderfully human. I think that Saunders has this incredible ability to reveal to us what we really are in a way that makes us laugh at first, and then feel sickened.

When reading this collection, the first thing you notice is the language. It seems a little bizarre at first, but you soon get used to Saunders’ extensive use of slang, neologisms, and fake product names. To be honest, I hated it at first, but soon came to appreciate it. I think that it really allows the reader to get inside the protagonists’ heads.

Bizarre writing style aside, I was surprised by how readable this collection is. Saunders actually reminds me a lot of Zizek in the sense that you can read the words on the page very quickly, but after a few pages, you realise that you haven’t fully grasped what has been said. And so you go back and re-read the words and they still don’t fully sink in, but you become more and more convinced that Saunders is definitely not a mere mortal.

Overall, I loved this book. I think I need a little break from Saunders, but I will definitely be going back for more after I have had a little time to digest this one. Would definitely recommend for short story enthusiasts and fans of hardcore literary fiction (especially fans of Donald Barthelme and Jonathan Lethem), although if you are looking for a breezy, straightforward read, Saunders is not your guy.

Have any of you read Tenth of December (or any other Saunders books for that matter)? If so, what did you think? 

~Anna