Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is like an acid trip. You just have to go with it. This is the advice of the PocketBook Club.
The book divided us. Some of us who loved it and a couple are ready to put it on the worst book of the year reading pile (it is only January!). In the middle are a group who are still deciding.
Fortunately, this division did not eventuate into a civil war. My prediction is we will keep talking about this book. Some books from our reading list keep getting raked over.
Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker prize in 2017 and it is easy to see why. It is experimental and quite different.
Hence the comparison to an acid trip. The experience of how to read Lincoln in the Bardo created as much discussion as the content of the book.
The book is a dialogue between a number of spirits or ghosts. There are no dialogue tags unless one spirit is describing the conversation. Instead, under each ghost’s dialogue, his or her name appears in smaller writing. Saunders does little to orientate the reader. A ghost may describe the action as they see it but no one is narrating the book.
In addition, every now and then a number of historical quotes (some fictional?) will be listed with the source of the quote. The quotes give the reader the historical context that drives the story. Abraham Lincoln had a son, Willie, who caught a fever and died. Lincoln while sending young men to their death in the American Civil War, was mourning his son and visiting his crypt.
Saunders imagines Willie in the cemetery along with spirits who must retell their story over and over in order to maintain their existence, get well and go back to their lives. They are not in coffins. They are in sick boxes. They cannot let go of their lives and their unfinished business and do not know they are dead.
A book about death is going to be philosophical but Saunders also has a wicked sense of humour. One of the ghosts died on the eve of consummating his marriage and exists in the Bardo with his giant swaying member swinging about and tripping him up.
So how to read this book? Just to be clear, we are not suggesting you take acid in order to read it!
Here is how it worked for me. I listened to the audible version. I started listening while I was painting. I expected a narrator to tell me a story. I got a number of voices interrupting each other. Characters were not introduced to the reader. I got lost and confused. Then I got all these historical quotes – again all in different voices. I shut it down and realised I would need to give this my full attention. I couldn’t paint architraves and make sense of it.
I came back a few days later and started again, this time knowing what to expect. Still, I was a third of the way in and I needed to know how the text looked on the page. I borrowed a copy thinking it might be easier to read than listen to. It was not. But it was easier to listen when I had a picture of how the pages looked. I found the most satisfying way to absorb the book was simultaneously listen and follow the text of the book.
Another member of the club started reading the text, and turned to the audible – their first audible book – and loved listening to it. But listening was not the answer for everyone. One listener hated it. Another listening is on the fence. Of the text readers, there was also a spread of lovers, fence sitters and the unimpressed.
The common thing was that all of us a story about HOW we read this book.
You just need to let go and let it take you on its trip. There is no narrator to hold your hand. You will be disorientated. Accept the disorientation, forgot trying to remember who is who (there are 166 characters) and just go on the journey.
Don’t be put off. I think this book is tremendous, stunning, and I will go back to it.
There were some complaints about the ending and some people did not like how the quotes dragged them out of the story.
Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? I am keen to hear your experiences.
What we ate: Cornbread and smoked beans because that is what the Confederate soldiers marched on. Apple because the rumour is that Lincoln survived on apple and laxatives. There might be laxatives in the chocolate bowl. Cheese was first mass-produced during the 1860s when this book was set but we don’t need an excuse for cheese.