Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!

I'm not usually persuaded to pick up a book based on prestigious literary awards but I was curious to see what all the hoopla was about surrounding this Man Booker Prize winner from 2017. My only encounter with George Saunders was a short-story that I read in the New Yorker years ago that has completely faded from memory. I honestly couldn't even tell you what it was about but do remember it being really really weird and feeling rather indifferent about it. I pretty much had the exact same emotional response to Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which contains probably, if not, the most bizarre and unique narrative structure that I have ever encountered. In fact, I'm pretty sure there has never been a novel that has ever been written in this particular style before. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Saunders utilizes a play-like structure with a vast number of speaking voices, interspersed with fragments of historical documentation, letters, journals and various anecdotes (some real, some fictionalized). His experimental style is bound to frustrate readers expecting a more linear narrative and I can totally understand why this novel was been met with harsh criticism by those who may have been expecting any semblance of 'plot' or well-developed characters. Saunders does not just deconstruct the novel, he decimates it with a sledgehammer. 

This text is a perfect example of what literary critic Linda Hutcheon refers to as "historiographic meta-fiction," which is just another fancy way of saying that it is highly self-reflexive and inherently paradoxical while problematizing the relationship between history and fiction. The movement from realism to post-modernism in this novel is an important moment of transition, encapsulating a shift in genre and consciousness. The fragmented narrative shows unity through disunity; celebrating multiple truths instead of just one overarching truth. The separation from literary tradition is relevant to any poetics of post-modernism and Saunders enthusiastically eschews with any linear succession of historical writing; he presents a striking denunciation of empiricism and objective truth. By not being bound to only what has happened in the past, the text confronts the paradoxes of fictive/historical representation. Saunders does a staggering amount of research on Abraham Lincoln, which draws attention to the historiography but there are gaps in that history and fiction helps to alleviate this problem. Thus, the self-recognition of fictional artifice allows other voices who have been erased by history to speak, including Abe's son Willie along with a chorus of ghosts. Yes, Saunder even dabbles in the supernatural to reclaim these lost voices. Language is power and he gives a voice to those silenced from "official history" through a self-reflexive meta-fiction. 

If writers like Italo Calvino, Ishmael Reed or even Kurt Vonnegut are considered post-modernist writers for their subversion of literary conventions then would George Saunders be viewed as a post-post modernist writer for his radical deconstructionism? I never thought it were possible to push the boundaries of the novel form this far until now and it makes me wonder: what's next, a novel comprising of grocery lists, scribbles or legal documents? Anyways, for me, Saunders's experimental form worked rather well for the most part to create a compelling narrative and there were some emotionally resonant moments. However, my only problem is that this particular style feels tedious at times and also a bit gimmicky once you figure out what is going on and get attuned to the rhythm of his prose.


  1. i'm probably foolish to mention it as you undoubtedly already know it, but the Bardo is the place in Tibetan Buddhism where dead people go on transit through to their reincarnation. it's full of devils and unanchored souls who torment the temporary visitor, scaring him/it/her into fits... the book sounds like it was trying to imitate that experience... original idea, if perhaps a bit outre?

    1. Hello Mudpuddle, thank you for your insight. I think this is an important concept to keep in mind here because it greatly influences Saunders' aesthetics, further highlighting what I pointed out in my review about bringing the forgotten history back to the forefront through meta-fiction/supernatural.

  2. I have never read anything by Saunders and probably should just to say I have if nothing else. He pops up frequently around the blogosphere. "Lincoln in the Bardo" was one of those books that was at the top of my list for a while but I never could get a hold of it at my library - always a long waiting list. The experimental aspect of it makes me hesitant but still curious.