George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

 Reluctantly, I accepted a long time ago that congenitally, almost inescapably, I’m incapable of caring about (or at times engaging fairly) with anything that feels unduly like American navel-gazing. As a Canadian, I can mostly get away with that, since we’ve got more or less our own culture here, but certainly it’s a limitation on my ability to enjoy things that the rest of you seem to take for granted.

Like, for example, George Saunders’ astonishingly well-received Lincoln in the Bardo, that seems to have been much loved even in the book club I belong to.

Experience has proven that I’m crap at predicting or understanding what prize juries will respond to, so I take no position on this novel’s:

  • having won the Man Booker Prize in 2017;

  • having been selected as the best Booker novel of the 2010s, for entry into the Hunger Games the Golden Man Booker competition; and

  • having received not just 42 reviews in the year of its publication (HOW SO MANY???), but 39 of the 42 either “rave” or “positive,” only 3 of them “mixed,” and nary a one of them negative.

Readers gonna read, juries gonna jury. We don’t have to agree. It’s fine.

Technically and structurally, Lincoln in the Bardo seems a feat of wizardry. Saunders’ decision to weave a novel purely out of voices, many of them imagined but many others quoted from letters, journalism, or academic research, was inspired, and as a result his novel very much stands out from the mainstream literature crowd.

But is it an experimental novel, for which innovation it’s celebrated by many of its readers? Not to me, it isn’t. Instead, it’s an especially accomplished example of old-school postmodernism, specifically that blend of pastiche and collage defined by Claude Levi-Strauss as bricolage. I do enjoy postmodernism and its strangenesses, but the broad cultural forgetting of those few decades’ worth of art/literature doesn’t make something “experimental” when it’s more accurately categorized as a late example of classic postmodernism.

It’s a character-stuffed novel, too, not particularly a novel of ideas, and that’s always going to be appealing. Saunders does a great job of generating different voices for each of them (I loved Eddie and Betsy Baron, in particular), and manging to keep them separate from each other. Because it’s 100% dialogue and quotation, that’s a challenging task, so full marks to Saunders for that accomplishment.

Me, I struggled to care enough about the three main ghost characters to keep them fully separate in my mind. Significant elements of their characterization were intended for comic effect, Saunders having said in an interview he thought it essential, but I don’t see that at all. And absolutely it makes me a prude, but a naked ghost with a permanent erection so huge that he amuses himself by rolling a pebble down it when bored? GTFO, seriously.

But I’ll admit, Willie Lincoln was pretty stunning, and Saunders should go to his grave feeling proud of that creation. No notes whatsoever on Willie.

But. And yet. On the other hand.

Because Lincoln in the Bardo was published in 2017, it was perhaps inevitable that reviewers (American journalism-linked ones, especially) would find themselves thinking about Trump while reading about Lincoln. In that context, the temptation to rave about Saunders’ Lincoln, particularly his depiction of what Saunders quite reasonably takes to be Lincoln’s deeply principled internal life, would no doubt have been irresistible. As was said about Kennedy after his death, then so for Lincoln: “This … THIS was a President.” (About Trump, it’ll be “This … THIS was a PRESIDENT?!?!?”) In particular, the novel’s clear-sightedness about race and slavery, set as it is in the midst of the Civil War, would’ve drawn a sharp contrast for reviewers and readers (America-looking ones especially) between Lincoln’s determination and the Trump-affiliated right-wing Charlottesville marches happening the same year this novel was published.

As a result, Lincoln in the Bardo was the novel that America needed in 2017. (I’d say much the same about Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House.) It gave readers a president who was precisely the opposite of the clown/vandal/tumor Trump. It connected the present moment with an entire trajectory of American culture (journalism, history, scholarship, art/literature). And it did so while centring the experience of religious faith, without pushing its readers to actually decide or believe anything about its depiction of religion or faith.

And with Trump trying to get back into the White House in 2024, it’s probably fair to say that it’s also the novel that America needs in 2024. (Here’s hoping that it won’t also be needed for the rest of the 2020s….) Carry on with your praise, if that’s what feels right.


I hesitate to call a technically accomplished, imaginative novel stuffed with vibrant dialogue among clearly realized characters “overrated,” but I can’t help myself.

Lincoln in the Bardo was a tremendous feat, and it simply doesn’t do it for me.

I’m not going to be mean about it, because as I say, we don’t have to agree. For example, I’m not going to say that a novel-in-dialogue was a convenient way for the teacher and short-story specialist Saunders to avoid writing a novel at all. I’m not going to call the Vollman character a source of cheap humour, or Bevins of cheap empathy, or Thomas of cheap intellectualism, but at the same time, undeniably they’re shorthand characters at heart, playing functional roles in Saunders’ illumination of Lincoln and America rather than genuine trajectories of their own, fight me.

Again: Lincoln in the Bardo was a tremendous feat, and it simply doesn’t do it for me. That’s fine.

Unless there’s something wrong with me. Which is entirely possible.

(Cross-posted on my Substack: long story, but I don't trust stats etc about readership either there or here!)


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