Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Our book club book for this month was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This is the debut novel from Saunders and is described everywhere as "avant garde," so I was super nervous upon reading it. I had to keep checking it out of the library because I was consistently having to return it after having read only twenty pages.

It's the story of the in between stage between life and death (the "bardo") and the ghosts who hang out there.  It's a narration about the love of a father for his child. It's the retelling of the stories of the forgotten.  It's confusing as all get out.

There are over 150 characters in the book and if you try to follow each individual story line, you'll drive yourself crazy. I was attempting to do that the first couple of attempts at this book.  But then I let it go. I imagined myself in the bardo with ghosts flitting in and out, only obtaining the bits and pieces of their stories. I imagined the confusion of not really knowing you're dead.  I stopped trying to figure out plot and just imagined being there. It made it all much more reasonable and I made it through the last half of the book with less sturm and drang and confusion. 

Saunders is quite clever in the writing. He uses bits and pieces from historical narratives in addition to his own narration from the beings in the bardo.

His hair was dark brown, without any tendency to baldness. - In "The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln," by Katherine Helm, account of Senator James Harlan.

His hair was black, still unmixed with gray. - In "Chiefly About War Matters," by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

His hair, well silvered, through the brown then predominated; his beard was more whitened. - In "A Wisconsin Woman's Picture of President Lincoln," by Cordelia A. P. Harvey, in "The Wisconsin Magazine of History."

The conflicting accounts tell us so much about the time period, but also call into question the idea of the "facts" of history.  If we want to describe Lincoln's hair color, there's no way to actually do so with any sort of accuracy. If that's the case on a detail that seems, on the face of it, to have an actually correct answer,  what hope do we have of constructing any sense of the reality of the past? 

In the end  I was glad I soldiered through on this one, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it without strongly advising that you gear up for some confusion at the beginning.

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