This is the first in a series of book reviews I’m doing on the (Man) Booker Prize Winners from the last decade. I’ll save you the jargon, but if you want to know more, click here.
‘The two now comprised one sitting man, Mr. Vollman’s greater girth somewhat overflowing the gentleman, his massive member existing wholly outside the gentleman, pointing up at the moon.’
I was completely lost and frustrated for the first fifty pages of Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 2017). I tried to start it twice and put it down again. It’s partly my own fault for not reading any blurbs, so I was bewildered as to whether I was reading fact or fiction. It wasn’t until I was stuck on a train for five hours that I managed to get past and understand what George Saunders was doing with the form. I should’ve known the author of the short story Escape from Spiderhead would have some tricks up his sleeve (no pun intended).
Bardo is a piece of historical fiction about Willie Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, who died at age eleven in the midst of the American Civil War. It centres on Willie’s time in the ‘bardo’- the Tibetan term for a transitional state (purgatory to any Christians or Catholics), alongside other spirits avoiding Heaven, Hell, or whatever comes next. Saunders adapted the true story of Willie’s death and Lincoln’s subsequent visits to his son’s crypt into an experimental novel, using quotations as his form. In a further twist on the form, some quotes are fictional, others are factual.
Considering the melancholy reality it sprang from, it’s a very funny novel. The story even begins in the hands of two bantering spirits, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins iii, detailing Vollman’s comically tragic death, via a ceiling beam on the morning he was due to consummate his marriage. The spirits inhabiting the upside-down version of the crypt and its surrounding cemetery are bizarre works of Saunders’s imagination. There’s the rough-around-the-edges Barons, bickering with one another, their expletives censored by many dashes, Vollman’s exposed and swollen ‘member’; and Percival “Dash” Collier, ‘compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever property he was most worried about at the moment.’ All of the colourful characters prop up the novel, attempting to aid Willie, who refuses to pass on because of his father’s grief-stricken visits to the crypt.
The comedy makes the novel and its experimental form accessible, after you get used to the ping-ponging narrative. The real winner here is the form. I didn’t think I could be as surprised as I was by a form in a novel as recent as twenty seventeen. As I said, I shouldn’t be surprised by Saunders, who until Bardo, had only written excellent short stories. And Bardo itself feels like a short story that never stopped. It even reads like Spiderhead, just without the quotations. The inconsistent nature of the factual quotations, some accounts claiming the moon outside the white house on the night Willie died was yellow, others saying there was no moon to be seen at all, confuses reality as much as the bardo does. Yet, when they agree on things like Mary Todd Lincoln’s grief, it brings the bouncing novel to a dead stop of reality. They were just parents too.
In terms of the novel’s depth and impact, there’s not too much to be found outside of Lincoln’s visits to the crypt. The story bobs along having fun with the three main spirits, getting into hi jinks with the various other erratic spirits in their mission to help Willie. The question over why the spirits choose to reside in the bardo is a nice enough mystery, even as Angels try to tempt them to pass and gruesome tentacles try to wrap Willie up. The story and its characters make me chuckle when I think back to first reading them a few months ago, but otherwise they’re forgettable; it’s the form that still blows me away.
Read Bardo if you want to be surprised and impressed by its form, or to have a few laughs in the transitional world of spirits, but if you’re searching for a life-changing prize winner, pass on.