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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
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Lincoln in the Bardo (original 2017; edition 2017)

by George Saunders (Author)

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2,3381743,893 (4.03)300
Member:Rosa_Saks
Title:Lincoln in the Bardo
Authors:George Saunders (Author)
Info:Bloomsbury Publishing (2017), Edition: 01, 368 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, Library Book
Rating:***1/2
Tags:American, historical fiction, 21st century, Booker Prize Winner

Work details

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders (2017)

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English (171)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (173)
Showing 1-5 of 171 (next | show all)
I was wary of this, expecting to dislike it. A piece of experimental fiction, and a universally-praised one – a prize-winner, at that; surely it would be insufferably self-satisfied and right-on? And yet – no. Lincoln in the Bardo is great. It takes the most impossible wound – the death of a child – and endeavours to heal it.

It does, I am reluctant to say, often read like Creative Writing. Aside from its trippy concept, it is all dialogue – almost like a play, and easily something you could imagine being enacted on a stage in a trendy city – and lyrical vernacular which threatens to become gimmicky (but never does). There also seems a strange insistence in books generated by the literati nowadays that they must include a gay relationship, a vague call to 'resist', as well as woke straw-men concerning paedophilia and slave rape, like there is a checklist at the publisher's office that is steel-bound. I say this not as a tut-tut criticism, because I'm not a delicate flower, but it is just something I always find peculiar, as though there is a regiment that you must join if you want to be published in Current Year.

The remarkable thing is that, despite these Creative Writing tropes and motifs, the book manages to completely avoid self-congratulation. The ideas are inventive – I particularly liked the rearrangement of historical sources, though whether they are real or invented, I don't know – and where the book experiments, the experiments succeed. This is what Creative Writing should be but so seldom is.

I think the reason for this is that Saunders has soul; his techniques are in service to the wider thematic attempts of the book, trying to help explain a transcendental idea that is complicated. They contribute to the creation of something that is often brilliant and profound, rather than resulting in the reader thinking: 'I liked it, but I wish it wasn't buried under gimmicks'.

As for this deeper idea, every review needs must explain what the 'bardo' is. Simply put, it is a Buddhist conception of something like Purgatory, only stranger and more hallucinatory. In Saunders' hands, it goes further, taking on an absurdist element that is, sometimes, legitimately amusing (but sometimes not: I don't care about Vollman's "tremendous member"). His metaphysics is coherent but complicated, something like the war between timidity and potential. There is also something about the cyclical nature of things, which is the closest anyone in the novel comes to a lasting peace.

It is sometimes hard to grasp – the idea that the dead don't know they are dead seems like an invented problem – and the idea that God's punishment is long and painful, no matter what you have done in life, seems to me an error. The mechanics of God's judgement are made out to be arbitrary; there is no enlightenment here, perhaps only a transitory one, and the dynamics of the bardo seem like divine cruelty. Saunders' ideas are interesting ones, but the ending was not as emphatic in its metaphysical declaration as I felt it had been building to. It felt to me that if Lincoln in the Bardo had reached a remarkable truth it should be more explicit, not something you have to discern in a reading-group but like a mask has been pulled away and there are wide open plains that you always knew to be there but had never really seen.

Nevertheless, I didn't expect a contemporary writer to be able to grapple with such metaphysical depth. Even if you don't share my Creative Writing prejudices, you have to admit it is so rare to find. Not only does Saunders grapple with it, and sometimes master it, but he uses it playfully. Lincoln in the Bardo is mind-expanding and yet page-turning – a laudable combination. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Sep 18, 2018 |
One of those books that you read really fast and then spend the next few months thinking about. I am unable to summarize it here - I tried, and all I can do is spout complimentary adjectives. Outstanding, entertaining, insightful. A great book. ( )
  JanetNoRules | Sep 17, 2018 |
A beautiful, quirky and heart-breaking novel. Quite a surprise. In a good way. ( )
  Niecierpek | Sep 11, 2018 |
In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln's son Willie dies of a fever. Lincoln is almost overwhelmed as he struggles with his personal grief as well as his national grief over the countless deaths of those over whom he is commander in chief.

We see this from the perspective of the ghosts that inhabit the graveyard where young Willy lies and where Abraham Lincoln visits by night. The ghosts all have their stories, which they carry with them into death and affect their physical manifestations.

I thought this was a moving portrait of Lincoln's grief and an interesting look at the Bardo, which according toa dictionary.com definition is ' a Tibetan Buddhism word for a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death'.

However, having several times seen the play Our Town which follows a newly deceased young wife and the other inhabitants of a grave yard, I didn't think this was quite as innovative as others have commented.

I listened to the audiobook and absolutely loved the ensemble cast with 166 readers including David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarndon and so many more. Apparently the publisher has applied to the Guinness Book of World Records for 'The Largest Cast for an Audiobook'. ( )
  streamsong | Sep 6, 2018 |
there is a good story here, but alas it is buried under six feet of gimmicks
  ireneattolia | Sep 3, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 171 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Saunders, Georgeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brownstein, CarrieNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cheadle, DonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dennings, KatNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dunham, LenaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hader, BillNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
July, Miranda Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Karr, MaryNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Offerman, NickNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sedaris, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stiller, BenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Dedication
For Caitlin and Alena
First words
On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.
Quotations
I will never forget those solemn moments—genius and greatness weeping over the love's lost idol.
Having never loved or been loved in that previous place, they were frozen here in a youthful state of perpetual emotional vacuity; interested only in freedom, profligacy, and high-jinks, railing against any limitation or commitment whatsoever.
In truth, we were bored, so very bored, so continually bored.
Birds being distrustful of our ilk.
Any admiration we might once have felt for their endurance had long since devolved into revulsion.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
Unread I hold it,
a new Saunders book is come.
My evening expands.
(SomeGuyInVirginia)

No descriptions found.

From the seed of historical truth that is the death of President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son Willie, George Saunders spins a "story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm ... Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state--called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo--a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul"--Amazon.com.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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