Before we get to George Saunders’ debut novel (we will get to it, hold your horses) and without so much as stopping to jump up and down like a child about – yay! – the fact that we now have a George Saunders’ novel, an aside: this might be the best book we’ve ever read. I know, stupid right? Who even thinks things like that? Only a child thinks in favourites. The point comes when, if pushed to name favourites, all an adult does is smile and pout and maybe inflate their cheeks and wax lyrical about the fact that – there are just so many… and however would a person pick a single… and it changes from hour to hour, day to day, week to week (depending on how flighty they are). Over the last twenty years, we have read a lot of books. A lot of books. A number of them have been very enjoyable indeed. But we can say with assurance that it has been a long time since we have read a book that was so enjoyable – sad and funny, exhilarating and beautifully written – that it had us wondering if this was in fact the best thing we had ever read. We don’t have an answer for you. The wondering didn’t lead anywhere but it remains there as a wonder, the sound of a tent flapping in a gale beneath this review.
And so to Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ debut novel. It’s a good title, isn’t it? Does what a good title should do. Intrigues. Just what the hell is a Bardo you might ask? You’ll also probably assume that the Lincoln in question is the famous one, President Abraham, when in fact it’s his son, Willie. It’s February 1862, we are in the midst of the American Civil War, and the President is not altogether popular. Less than a year in, the war was becoming unpopular both amongst his supporters and his enemies. There was no end in sight and many were dead. Lincoln’s son, Willie, thought a good boy by many, fell ill after riding on his horse in inclement weather. A party scheduled, the Lincolns take advice – should they go ahead or cancel? The party goes ahead and within 24 hours Willie is dead. Consider this context, however. Lincoln in the Bardo opens with us being introduced to Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. Who are Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, you might ask? They are spirits, of sorts. Not ghosts as such but rather remnants of lives that have not quite passed over yet. The Bardo is a kind of purgatory. Imagine a cemetery inhabited by such remnants, none of whom – whisper it – know that they are dead. Vollman was an elderly printer who took a young wife and was kind enough not to consummate the marriage before she was ready – only just as she appeared to be readying herself, he was stricken by a falling beam and his personage in the Bardo is cursed with an enormous erection. Bevins was a young gay man who took his own life after a love affair went wrong. In the Bardo, he
‘had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive’.
It’s important to quote that as it’s likely there will be people who would read this book and think it’s silly (in the voice of the Monty Python Colonel). Or there would be people who would not read because it sounds silly. More fool them. There are definitely outlandish things in Lincoln in the Bardo. What you might call fantastical elements. Bevins is just the beginning. There are three flying Bachelors who rain down hats whenever they pass by. There is a gentleman so obsessed by his (former) wealth and by worrying about his various properties that he is hammered flat, spinning like a compass needle. There is a young woman, Elise Traynor, who is variously manifested as ‘a horrid black furnace’, a fallen bridge, a vulture, a large dog, a terrible hag gorging on black cake, a stand of flood-ravaged corn, an umbrella ripped open by wind. Traynor represents what might happen to Willie if he doesn’t pass on – but Willie does not want to pass on, not with his dad paying him two unprecedented visits, visits in which he took the young boy in his loving arms to the astonishment of the supernatural residents. The push and pull between Lincoln and his boy, Willie, and predominantly Bevins and Vollman as they attempt to save the boy from his fate make up much of the back and forth of the book. At times, it reads like the most compelling thriller you’ve ever read.
But there is much much more. For one, the book is cacophonous with voices. (We recommend you listen to the audiobook in tandem with reading the novel.) Not only is there a cacophony of voices, there are is also a cacophony of stories and views – and not just in the Bardo, either. Saunders treats us, throughout the book, to excerpts of a great many books about Lincoln and the time, demonstrating that there is rarely a single, true version of events. We see it time and time again, from the various shapes the moon took on a single night to whether Lincoln was ugly, handsome, good bad or indifferent. All of which may make the book sound difficult but it isn’t. It’s luminous. Here is the Reverend Everly Thomas (a character responsible for some of the best moments in the book) talking about finding Willie alone after his father departs for the first time:
“Entering, I found the boy sitting in one corner.
My father, he said.
Yes, I said.
He said he will come again, he said. He promised.
I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved.
A miracle, I said.”
Part of the power of the book comes from the way in which Saunders treats grief. We’ve all lost people. We can all imagine what it would be like to lose a child. The fact that Saunders’ narrative grips and moves alongside what can only be described as the furthest reaches of a barmy imagination is quite a feat. As Lincoln pere leaves the cemetery at the close of the book, he is ‘broken, awed, humbled, diminished… Reduced, ruined, remade… Merciful, patient, dazzled…” It’s not a million miles away from what it’s like to finish the book.
There are a lot of things we can tell you, a lot of highlights we are reluctant to share, details best found yourself reading the book. There are complexities here (particularly when it comes to the ways in which Saunders arrays his theology) that you’ll want to mull over when you’re done. But in the minute, as you read, the sentences and the paragraphs and the short chapters will have you gasping and laughing. It’s a feat, a book like no other.
Any Cop?: We can’t recommend it enough.