Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Post by Graham on Mon Jun 04, 2018 4:04 pm

I gave this a fair shot – up to page 88. I’m not 100% sure of the page number because I put it down without my bookmark once and was never entirely sure that I had restarted where I left off. There are six pages of extracts from reviews inside the front cover all praising the book in terms that would seem to leave no doubt about the advisability, indeed the necessity, of reading it.

A few salient facts would have been in order. It is not a novel in the sense you might be used to. There is a cast of characters, and (by page 88 anyway) the beginning of a story line. The author however eschews the concept of writing prose that might tell you how these elements interrelate to move the story along. Instead he offers a series of quotes, sometimes from real books and authors, sometimes from imaginary characters, apparently ghosts in limbo. The subject matter is the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. Willie seems to have impressed everyone who met him with his boyish yet mature virtues. Lincoln’s grief is so overwhelming he takes to visiting the boy’s mausoleum.

The presentation of the text is broken by attributions and white space, the quotes are often interrupted, often contradictory, the language is arcane, and I found it confusing and physically exhausting to read. It won the Man Booker prize for 2017 and Zadie smith calls it a ‘Masterpiece’. It makes me think of the music of Schoenberg, painful and disturbing to listen to but hailed as the birth of modernism. Perhaps Saunders’ book is a pointer to the future or perhaps it is a case of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’.

There are very few novels I have stopped reading part way through but this one was giving me no pleasure or even provoking my curiosity. I put it down and picked up instead Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Phenomenology, set aside a month ago because my brain was hurting. It seems like a light read now.

Graham
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