Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Hello and welcome to another edition of I Don’t Get Literary Fiction!

As noted in previous posts, I’m an SFF reader at heart. That doesn’t mean I automatically hate anything that isn’t SFF – I love several Jane Austen novels, and I did a whole English degree with almost no SFnal content. It does mean that I tend not to get on well with contemporary literary fiction that uses SFnal tropes for the benefit of a non-SFF readership. Or, indeed, quite a lot of contemporary literary fiction.

All of which is only to say: while I didn’t hate George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, I also didn’t think it was All That, as practically every critic this year does.

You’ve probably heard by now that it’s about the untimely death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, at the height of the American Civil War; and it’s based on accounts of Lincoln going to the cemetery where he was buried and embracing his son’s body. The novel’s set, mostly, in that cemetery, which is full of ghosts who haven’t been able to move on to whatever comes next: a gay student who committed suicide and regrets it; a printer longing for the young wife he was just starting to fall in love with; a priest who knows he’s going to hell but doesn’t know why. When Willie’s ghost arrives in the cemetery, they know he needs to move on fast, or risk a terrible, stagnant fate; while Willie himself believes he needs to stay, so that his father can come for him.

Much has been made of the novel’s formal innovation, which is fair enough: technically, it stretches the definition of “novel” to breaking point while remaining quite readable, which (as anyone who has encountered the Modernists will know) is no mean feat. The cemetery chapters are told from the alternating viewpoints of the ghosts, in first-person snippets just a paragraph long, if that; they are interspersed with chapters describing the Lincolns’ grief in the White House, which are composed entirely of, again, snippets from various real accounts of Presidential doings. Formally, this creates a cacophony of voices through which the plot of the novel has to be glimpsed; an impression that the “truth” is a product of community. This sits nicely with Lincoln’s epiphany at the end of the novel, the “point” of this all: that everyone grieves at some point in their lives, and that the answer to this is to be kind to everyone. The multiple voices of Saunders’ novel – 166, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge – make up the body politic of the America that Lincoln must govern.

It’s somewhat problematic, then, that the centre stage of that body politic is taken by three white men – the ghosts I mentioned earlier. While it’s refreshing to have a gay character as part of that triad, only small voices are granted to women and people of colour – despite the fact that there’s a burial ground for black people alongside the cemetery. It’s possible that this is a deliberate choice, given the context of the Civil War; a way of representing the real-world silencing of people of colour in 1860s America (the white ghosts shout down and shut out the black ghosts whenever they appear). And the end of the novel does see the ghost of a black person entering Lincoln and inspiring him with the realisation that civil rights are important. But it’s the white characters the novel focuses on; and, as a result, that ending feels a little like white self-congratulation.

Formal innovation aside, the actual work going on in the novel feels rather obvious. The notion that one should be kind to everyone is not a particularly world-shattering one. The idea of a black ghost inspiring Lincoln to become a civil rights advocate makes me vaguely uncomfortable, though I’m not sure why (a hint of the White Saviour narrative about it, perhaps?); and, from the point of view of an SFF reader, is just a little bit…cheesy.

Ultimately, Lincoln in the Bardo was, for me, forgettable. I suspect that it’s more meaningful to an American audience with a sense of who Lincoln was and why he was important. But it’s not going to be one of my favourite books of 2017.

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