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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
(Random House, 342 pages)

05/24/17



 Historical fiction — we all have an idea of what that’s like, right? A retelling of what happened along with some polite liberties used with regard to descriptions and dialog. 

Well Lincoln in the Bardo is not your father’s (or even grandfather’s) historical fiction. The narrative skips around. It’s jarringly disjointed, fitting together only after several of the small pieces are told. The perspective constantly changes. It’s a book that requires mental gymnastics of its readers. 
Some of you may like this approach; others will be frustrated. 
I loved it. Anyone who experiments with storytelling method and who still manages to tell an impactful and insightful tale is an ace in my book. 
Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in 1862, one year after the Civil War has begun. President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son is gravely ill. Despite assurances that he will recover, the boy dies. Lincoln is devastated and newspapers report that he regularly goes to the boy’s crypt to hold his son’s body. 
From that historical fact, Saunders proceeds to weave a story of a father-and-son relationship, division within a country, and loss that far exceeds the sum of its parts. Sure, it’s unlikely that Lincoln actually visited a spiritual purgatory realm (referred to in Tibetan terms as the bardo), but if such a place existed, it’s quite probable that Lincoln would have said and done what he did in this depiction. 
After all, loss of the things you love most causes the same unimaginable pain no matter where you are. 
Saunders uses a lot of references from the Civil War and includes quotes from the period. With a cast of characters hovering around 100 (but only a few main characters) it can be confusing, but stick with it. If you can suspend your critical thinking voice, the payoff is well worth it in the end. 
It helps to read this book from a removed perspective, absorb its entirety instead of focusing on details. It’s the essence that delivers the story. It’s the way I read French — can’t do it word for word, but if I take a step back and absorb the big picture, I can usually figure out what’s being said. Take this snippet of a conversation from the bardo: 
 
Tried to “see” his boy’s face.
roger bevins iii
Couldn’t
hans vollman
Tried to “hear” the boy’s laugh.
roger bevins iii
Couldn’t.
hans vollman
Attempted to recall some particular incident involving the boy, in the hope this might —
roger bevins iii
 
The dialog leads us to where we need to go. 
Take note that because the cast of characters is large, it might be easier to digest it in the audio format. It would certainly be one way to keep all the “voices” separate. But while audio might be helpful, it’s certainly not necessary. As with all good books, a quiet room, perhaps a glass of wine and adequate lighting is all you really need to immerse and enjoy yourself with this one.
Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He’s not new to inventive methods of writing (check out his extensive library of short stories), nor is he new to the subject of the supernatural or paranormal. He definitely took a bold step (and, let’s face it, a big chance) with this book. It won’t be the book for everyone, but if you’re willing to take a step in the unknown and allow a fictional story to wash over you, then I assure you, you won’t be disappointed with Lincoln in the Bardo. A 
— Wendy E.N. Thomas 

 






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