by George Saunders
* * * * *
That rarest of books - something original and richly imagined, with an honest and driving sense of purpose that absolutely sweeps the reader into its crazy, sad, and funny vortex.
Saunders makes the ventrilloquist act work because the reader quickly understands that this is not a parlor game. Saunders authentically believes in what he's doing. The format is unique, or at least highly-unusual, a sort of avante-garde theatre in novel form. But there are no wink-wink, look-at-how-intellectually-cutting-edge-we-are-here moments. It might take fifty pages or so, but the reader soon realizes that there's a method to Saunders' madness. The myriad of voices form a classic Chorus, with a few leads, describing the "action."
The feeling is that Lincoln in the Bardo was an intellectual and metaphysical study for Saunders. He posed himself a question, a question for which modern science provides no good answer, and then, finding the most perfect moment (the entire plot occurs over the course of one night) to use as a template, went about trying to answer that question for himself, and ultimately for his readers, by the writing of this book. The question is "What happens to us, and our loved ones, when we die?" Not referring to the body, the "meat" as he calls it at one harrowing point, but the "spirit," the ineffable something that makes you who you are.
Like "Waiting for Godot" the voices are at first shrill and strange but eventually become familiar and friendly; these are melancholy and goofy heroes, undead dreamers on a strange quest.
Like McCarthy's "The Road", the central dilemma will absolutely pulverize your sense of distance, will just break your heart in a million pieces, and cause you to look at and consider your loved ones anew with grateful uncalloused eyes.
Like Dante's "Divine Comedy", all sorts of masterfully-imagined and gleefully cruel undead fates are concocted as penitence or punishment. But again, we come to understand that Saunders isn't just going for a cheap laugh and all the random levels of Hell come together towards the end.
And finally, the book provides a portrait of Lincoln and insight into a gut-wrenching and crucial moment in American history. What seems so obvious to us now was in fact a blurred miasma of bad and worse choices to old Abe, and in the middle of it.... he visited the Bardo.