Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

lincolnbardoAbout Lincoln in the Bardo

• Hardcover: 306 pages
• Audio: 7 hours
• Published: February 2017 by Random House
• Source: Purchased (Scribd Audiobooks)

Goodreads DescriptionThe captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

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.

My Thoughts

Lincoln in the Bardo is another one of those books I’ve seen EVERYWHERE for the last couple of months. At first, I was mildly intrigued, but the more exposure it got, the more I wanted to read it. Funny how that works. I was sold when I heard the audio version has 166 different readers. Yes, you read that right: 166. Each character in the story is voiced by someone different, making it a completely ground-breaking recording. Saunders gathered quite the cast – he’s got famous authors, actors, musicians, but he’s also got his family and friends, as well as folks from the publishing house. It’s quite the feat, and quite the experience, and I knew I absolutely had to listen to the book (rather than read it).

I won’t beat around the bush; this book gave me a hard time. I actually had to go into a bookstore to LOOK at the book to figure out what was happening. It’s written in a strange format, little snippets of thought/speech/etc., but the switching back and forth in the audio is incredibly distracting until you get the hang of it. It also took me a good 5 chapters before I realized that “op cit” isn’t a last name, but a way to indicate the previous line is taken from a longer selection of text that was previously cited.  Yeah.

And then…because there’s nothing to guide you, it took me a little while to realize that there are parts of the text where the “characters” are GHOSTS. If I had a better vocabulary, I’d have gotten that from the title –  Bardo is a Tibetan word that means “transitional state.” In other words, it’s referring to spirits or souls of people who have died but haven’t quite moved on the the next phase – to Christians that would be heaven, to Buddhists, that’s to the next life. Once I figured that part out, the story started to make a lot more sense – you basically have parts where Willie Lincoln is talking to ghosts in the bardo, and then the other parts are real live people recounting how Abraham Lincoln is reacting to his son’s death.

Make sense? Good. Glad we cleared that up.

As for the audio experience, like I said, incredibly distracting and difficult to get the hang of. But, it also works…if you can hang in there. Eventually you get into the rhythm and you don’t notice the op cits quite so much. That said, I couldn’t listen to this one long-term…I tried while driving to Atlanta, and only made it about an hour before switching to something else. Thankfully it’s a short audio, so you can knock this one out fairly easily even in small batches.

All of that said – I realized halfway through that I just didn’t care about the story. I wasn’t interested in the ghost parts, which make up a lot of the story. The only parts I really wanted to listen to were when Willie and his father were together, and those were few and far between. The thought of spending another 4 hours on the book filled me with dread, so I gave this one up as abandoned.

I’m giving Lincoln in the Bardo an extra star for inventiveness. It’s a neat way to tell a story, and I think Saunders did a great job – it’s just not for me. I’m in the minority – this book seems to have a cult following. For those considering reading it, I do think the format lends itself better to print.

2 stars

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