Monday, March 20, 2017

The Bard

Oh, yeah! I read multiple books while on vacation. Short-ish reviews:

I’ve been waiting for well over a decade for the first George Saunders novel. I never thought we would get one, but now we have! It’s really good. Lincoln in the Bardo feels stylistically different from earlier Saunders, but is absolutely rooted in his moral sensibility, the aspect of his writing I appreciate most.


The overall conceit of ghosts hanging out reminded me slightly of Doug Dorst’s Alive in Necropolis, but Lincoln in the Bardo is more clearly literary. The structure feels a bit unique: each chapter is a series of sections, most just a couple of sentences long. These are typically either fictional historical excerpts (quotes from letters, journals, or from supposed history books), or else attributed statements. The statements are usually from ghosts. (I kept thinking of them as “ghosts,” although that probably isn’t technically the best term for the bardo inhabitants.)

One interesting aspect of these statements is that they’re always outward-looking. We don’t learn much about the minister from the minister himself: we learn much more about him from the printer. And, if the printer and the minister are talking, you’ll see all the printer’s lines reported by the minister and vice-versa. It’s a small but interesting inversion: visually, much of the novel actually looks like a play, but rather than each character saying their own lines, they’re writing the lines that they have heard from the other characters.

The single most important work in describing Saunders’ work is “empathy”, and I think that’s part of the reason for this stylistic choice. The characters aren’t just important for the content of what they’re saying. It’s significant that they’re actually getting to know one another, to understand them, to realize what drives them, their hopes and fears. This extra layer of mediation is technically unnecessary, but thematically core to Saunders’ mission.

The most compelling character in the book is also the most famous: Abraham Lincoln. He’s such a larger-than-life figure in the real world that he must have been very intimidating to take on here. Saunders does a few clever things to help get at him. One is quoting a wide and contradictory set of sources describing Lincoln, from his admirers and detractors, who vehemently disagree over whether he is kind or distant, idealistic or ambitious, even the colors of his eyes. These don’t really get resolved when we directly inhabit Abraham, contributing to the sense that, like any one of us, he is a complex person.


The other major element is that we’re just seeing one particular slice of his life: a very important and gut-wrenching slice, but his mind is almost totally focused on grieving for his dead son. This private, intimate experience isn’t the sort of thing that would get written down, so it feels like we’re peering into an obscured corner of the real man’s life.

Grief dominates his thoughts: even when his mind briefly turns to politics or war, it’s colored by the tragedy he’s experiencing. The novel ends up making a very powerful and passionate statement, which I think is particularly poignant coming from someone like Saunders with strong pacifist convictions and a devotion to equality. Lincoln powerfully feels the loss of Willie, and, as he contemplates the still-burgeoning Civil War, he imagines his grief being multiplied hundreds of thousands of times. Each Union soldier he sends into battle may be killed, leaving behind parents and lovers to mourn the loss; every Confederate killed under his orders will likewise leave behind survivors, whose hearts will break even as his own is breaking.

This seems like a clear formula for indecisiveness, to pull back from the brink and take any means necessary to end the suffering. And yet, he emerges determined to stay the course, and even accelerate the war to its final conclusion. The evil of slavery is so great that it demands action to stop. Tellingly, he doesn’t conclude that the casualties will be justified or absolved by the outcome: they are still wrong, still painful. He takes that guilt upon himself, holding the simultaneous and incompatible beliefs that killing is wrong and killing is necessary. I was reminded of one of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes: “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”


This is a short post for such a great book. I don’t know whether we’ll get any more novels from Saunders in the future, but this was a pretty fantastic debut!

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