Weird Fiction Review #5: Lincoln in the Bardo (2023)

NOTE: This is the fifth of ten reviews of contemporary weird novels. An overview of the project can be found below.

George Saunders’ Lincoln in theBardo was published in 2017 by Random House, to considerable acclaim. It brieflytopped the New York Times best-seller list, and won the Man Booker Prize—anotherlaurel for Saunders, whose short stories, published in Haper’s, Esquire,and The New Yorker, have won him a MacArthur Fellowship, a GuggenheimFellowship, and a World Fantasy Award, among others. The keepers of the keys toliterary acclaim adore him. It’s testament to his vigorously original style; noprose feels more “of the moment.” His pastiche of corporate and advertising argot,his tone of perpetual emergency, and the precision with which he creates arubbery (tough, malleable, unnatural) reality bring America English into thetwenty-first century. Reading his best stories, I get a thrill like that whichI imagine Flaubert’s or Woolf’s contemporaries to have felt. Thomas Pynchon,the great stylist and one of the weirdest authors of our age, overcame hisnotorious reticence to praise Saunders’ “astoundingly tuned voice.”

Given his status in the field ofliterary production and his evident pursuit of a pure (i.e., wholly original)style, it is odd to think of Saunders as a genre writer. Placing Lincoln inthe Bardo alongside pulpier fiction, such as LaValle’s, Langan’s, orCantero’s, exemplifies the approach to weirdness that I’m attempting toarticulate. Weird fiction is weird in part because it troubles the hierarchythat developed in the modern literary field—the one that vaguely butrelentlessly distinguishes “high art” from “low,” the canonical from thepopular, the sacred from the vulgar, etc. Saunders’ stories remind us that thisdistinction is particularly troubled by the genre of fantastic fiction, whichincludes work by Henry James and Edith Wharton alongside H. P. Lovecraft and WilliamHope Hodgson. The politics of taste is the most obvious reason why Saunders isn’tcommonly perceived as a writer of ghost stories. For example, there’s nomention of Saunders in S. T. Joshi’s two-volume survey of supernatural horror,even though his stories—from his first collection, Civil War Land in BadDecline (1996) to this recent novel–deploy supernatural and uncannyelements, including ghosts (“Civil War Land in Bad Decline,” “DowntroddenMary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” and Lincoln in the Bardo), zombies (“SeaOak”), speculative worlds (“Bounty”), and episodes of psychosis (“Escape fromSpider-Head,” “My Chivalric Romance”). His oeuvre includes realist stories(“Puppy,” “The Falls,” and “The Tenth of December”), but many of his tales employthe supernatural. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo was published by RandomHouse, not Tor, Tartarus, or Centipede, and Saunders stories appear in TheNew Yorker, rather than Apex, Shimmer, Pseudopod, or anthologiesby Ellen Datlow. (“Sea Oak,” however, was reprinted in Peter Straub’s excellent,two-volume American Fantastic Stories, published by the Library ofAmerica.)

Given that Saunders is unquestionably a “mainstream” writer–in a review of Lincoln in the Bardo for the London Review of Books, Robert Bairdfinds that “itwould be hard to overstate his influence on American writing”—we might observethat a great many critically acclaimed and popular contemporary writers–Toni Morrison(RIP), Joyce Carol Oates, China Mieville, Thomas Pynchon–write ghost stories,horror stories and about speculative worlds. Recognizing the literary value of Saunders’weird tales may betoken the “mainstreaming” of a genre: weirdness passes frombeing one kind of story to being a (negative) component of literary realism.This dissolution of weird fiction into literaturehas occurred twice before—at the birth of realism, in the early 1800s, and duringthe modern moment, when the ghost or doppelganger story was taken seriously bywriters (Dostoevsky, James, Wharton, Kafka) who also took realism seriously.

The critical distinction is not solely a matter of reception.Saunders’ satirical humor and vernacular style, as well as a penchant forallegory, allow his work to be labeled “experimental fiction” and “literary,”rather than “horror fiction” and “generic.” Because he’sa comedian, his work does not feel like horror, despite the cruelty he inflictsupon his characters and the regular appearance of reality-rending monsters. Butas Todorov points out, there’s no reason to assume that a story’s descent intomadness or disclosure of miraculous events should be met with screams ratherthan laughter. E. T. A. Hoffmann kept the hilarious and uncanny in close proximity,and this achievement may be found in many wonderfully weird tales, includingPoe’s “Hop-Frog” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” some of Ambrose Bierce’sstories, John Kendrick Bangs’ “Thurlow’s Christmas Story,” and Stephen King’s“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet.” Similarly, because Saunders’ prose is so original(or “innovative,” as his characters would put it), it doesn’t feel like thepseudo-Gothic prose adopted by Lovecraft or the terser, functional prose ofmodern horror writers, likes Oates, King or Ramsey Campbell. (There is a kindof curious precedent for Saunders’ style in Ray Russell’s “Sardonicus” and“Sagittarius”–weird tales aimed at readers of Playboy in the 1960s.)

Several critics have pointed towardthe quality of Saunders’ work that I wish to describe, without quite naming it.I haven’t found any reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo that explicitly linkSaunders to weird, fantastic, or speculative fiction, yet most critics index a strangenessthat helps to define his oeuvre. According to Baird, Saunders “has often reveled in asense of uncanny disorientation.” Ron Charles, writing in The Washington Post, calls Lincolnin the Bardo “a divisively oddbook” and “fantastical.” Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times,describes it as “like a weird folk art.” ForJenny Shank, in Dallas News, “Lincoln in the Bardois weird,disorienting, funny and incredibly moving.” For Hari Kunzru, in The Guardian, “Lincoln in the Bardofeels like a blend ofVictorian gothic with one of the more sfx-heavy horror franchises.” In short,there’s no question that Saunders’ work is affectively weird. Thequestion is: how does this strangeness comport with the genre of weird fiction,relying upon generic tropes while testing the limits of supernatural horror?How might we recalibrate our understanding of the genre in order to includenovels such as this one, which invites the reader to experience multiple kindsof weirdness? Where, exactly, does the sense of uncanniness, oddity, andqueerness originate in Saunder’s prose? In this post, I hope to indicateanswers to these questions, while drawing on and clarifying the observationsmade by previous reviewers.

SpeculativeFiction

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the night of February 25, 1862 in Oak Hill Cemetery.President Lincoln’s son Willie has died of “fever” (most likely Typhoid) at theage of 12 a few days before. During the night, Lincoln visits the cemetery andcradles his son’s body. Saunders makes this historical event the occasion forwhat Ron Charles calls “an extended national ghoststory”. Lincoln’s visit is witnessed by dozens of ghosts, who sleep in their“sick beds” by day and roam the cemetery at night. These spirits exist insomething like the Buddhist bardo, confined to Oak Hill’s environs until theyaccept that they are dead. As critics have noted, the central conceit echoesEdgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of poeticmonologues spoken by the deceased members of a fictional Illinois town. Becausethe story is written in something like dramatic form (see below), it alsosuggests the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938). But as Kakutani notes,the novel more closely resembles Masters’ poetry to the degree that “Saunders’sextraordinary verbal energy is harnessed . . . in the service of capturing thepathos of everyday life,” rather than its wonder or joy. Like Masters, Saundersdelights in reframing Victorian sentiment (from a modern perspective) bydrawing out its Gothic elements. In this, the novel’s characters—mostly thegrotesque ghosts, whose inability to quit the mortal plane turns them into contemporarycaricatures of Victorian sots and playboys, penitents and queers—and it’s themes—thestruggle to confront loneliness, cowardice, grief, and confusion—recallSaunders’ earlier fiction. As Thomas Mallon observes in The New Yorker, OakHill bears more than a passing resemblance to the impossible historical themeparks described in some of Saunders’ most memorable stories, including“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Wave Machine,” “My Chivalric Romance,” and“Bounty.”

The uncanny funhouses in these stories are Saunders’ portalinto speculative fiction. In popular discourse, “speculative fiction” istreated as an umbrella term for a wide range of supernatural and fantasticstories, but in my taxonomy it is a recently popularized sub-genre of weirdfiction—one that combines the “world-building” associated with science fictionor fantasy with a disfigured realism. Because of its laborious negotiation withhistorical accuracy, speculative fiction is best associated with dystopianliterature and what Poe calls “tales of ratiocination.” It’s an intellectualgenre, full of explanation and/or exemplification of its alternative reality—aworld that our world might (have) become. Speculative fiction insists upon anintellectual rigor that is easily (joyfully) disregarded by “classic” fantasyand science fiction. It’s rigorous / rigid adherence to the real world maintainsthe affective charge of rational curiosity, preventing a drift into the purely fantastic—theimpact of “if it were so,” rather than “what if.” The most important works ofpost-war speculative fiction include Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the HighCastle (1962) and many of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories in Artifices(1944), The Aleph (1949), and Dr. Brodie’s Report (1970), as wellas more recent works, such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union(2008), and Mieville’s The City & the City (2009). In these stories,the impossible thing is history as such—impossible because it might always havegone otherwise. Mallon alludes to this aspect of Saunders’ work when hedescribes his oeuvre as “a half-dozen books ofaccomplished, high-concept short fiction.” Speculative fiction depends upon the“high concept” and a willingness to “accomplish” a vision of this alteredreality. Saunders’ ridiculous theme parks are slightly alternative dystopianrealities, filtered through the self-serving perspectives of management andlabor in a world where symbolic labor is paramount.

In this regard, Lincoln in theBardo creates a surrealist cemetery funhouse by crossing historically basedaccounts of Victorian sentimentality with a loosely constructed version of apartially non-Western afterlife. As Kunzru explains, “This is not a straightforwardly Tibetan bardo, in which soulsare destined for release or rebirth. It is a sort of syncretic limbo which hasmuch in common with the Catholic purgatory, and at one point we are treated toa Technicolor vision of judgment that seems to be drawn from popular19th-century Protestantism…” The most important literary precedent forthis deliberately confusing and often “technicolor” other world may be found inAmos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bushof Ghosts (1954). The salient difference is that in Tutuola’s novels thehighly energetic, hybridized, and dreamlike world is coextensive with our ownand engulfs the future. Saunders’ bardo, like his theme parks, is an island ofinsanity (in this case, the size of the cemetery) surrounded by a more rationalorder and securely located in the national past.

Ghosts

As in Tutuola’s stories (and, forexample, Mielville’s New Crobuzon), the pleasure of discovery is paramount;Saunders’ funhouse is full of monstrous creatures. As Charlesputs it, “a ghoulish gallery of desiccated lives, minds dehydrated until allthat remains are the central anxieties and preoccupations of their lives aboveground.” Kakutani offers a similarly accurate portrayal of these creatures,describing them as “Edward Gorey-style ghosts, skittering across the landscape— at once menacing, comical and slightly tongue-in-cheek.” The ghosts“manifest” in neurotic forms, their bodies misshapen or experiencing variousdegrees of corporeality depending upon their anxieties (and they are nothingbut anxieties). For example, “The crowd, having suspended its perversities,stood gaping at Mr. Bevins, who had acquired . . . such a bounty of extra eyes,ears, noses, hands, etc., that he now resembled some overstuffed fleshlybouquet” (141). They are weirdest when their bodies dissolve into scenarios ormutate rapidly: “The Traynor girl lay as usual, trapped against, and part of,the fence, manifesting at the moment as a sort of horrid blackened furnace. . .The girl was silent. The door of the furnace she was at that moment onlyopened, then closed, affording us a brief glimpse of the terrible orange placeof heart within. . . She rapidly transmuted into the fallen bridge, thevulture, the large dog, the terrible hag gorging on black cake, the stand offlood-ravaged corn, the umbrella ripped open by a wind we could not feel”(36-7). This is a “high-concept” ghost; its shimmering takes the form ofsurrealistically displaced symbolic objects that fluctuate with personal and culturalsignificance.

The cartoonish, “tongue-in-cheek” quality emerges at theexpense of the more “traditional” or sentimental ghosts, such as Mrs. Ellis, “astately, regal woman, always surrounded by three gelatinous orbs floating abouther person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters” (78). After adetailed description of a sentimental drama in which Mrs. Ellis tries to motherher daughters, we are told “On other days, everyone she met manifested as agiant mustache with legs” (79). The joke uses Monty-Pythonesque surrealism toundercut the melodrama. A similar kindof humor occurs when we are introduced to Eddy and Betsy Baron, impoverisheddrunkards who can’t give up debauchery. Their pastiche of the morality tale isundercut by relentlessly blasphemy, removed from the text as though by aVictorian censor. Here’s Eddie Baron on his children: “F—- them! Thosef—-ing ingrate snakes have no G——-ed right to blame us for a f—-ingthing until they walk a f—-ing mile in our G——ed shoes and neitherf—-ing one of the little s—-heads has walked even a s—-ing half-mile inour f—-ing shoes.” The modern reader guffaws at this across the gulf ofhistorical time—we laugh at our own assumptions that pre-Civil War ghostsweren’t quite so foul-mouthed. The same humor animates the script of Deadwood,for example.

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At the heart of these depictions is an odd sort of literary Naturalism:Saunders holds his characters in the kind of loving contempt that Stephen Cranedeploys, while revealing humans to be creatures of nakedly gross appetites,such as one finds in Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Flannery O’Connor, or IrishMurdoch. But all of the tenets of Naturalism have been turned inside out.Redemption is possible; the moral order can be restored, and the path towardrestitution is leavened by absurdity. Thus, for example, Trevor Williams, aminor ghost, is a

former hunter, seated before the tremendous heap of all theanimals he had dispatched in his time: hundreds of deer, thirty-two black bear,three bear cubs, innumerable coons, lynx, foxes, mink, chipmunks, wild turkeys,woodchucks, and cougars; scores of mice and rats, a positive tumble of snakes,hundreds of cows and calves, one pony (carriage-struck), twenty thousand or soinsects, each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for aperiod ranging from several hours to several months, depending on the qualityof loving attention he could muster and the state of fear the beast happened tohave been in at the time of its passing (127).

As it did for the Beats (Ginsberg in particular), Buddhistcompassion provides a mode of buffering and forgiveness for colonial andcapitalistic devaluing of life in the national past. We meet racist ghosts(Lieutenant Cecil Stone), property-loving ghosts (Percival “Dash” Collier), andnumerous ghosts (like our tour guides, Hans Vollman and Rogers Bevins III) whoremain entangled in lust. All of these “too human” traits get sorted in thebardo, where they are caricatured until their “fleshly bouquet” manifestsitself: an absurdity that finds forgiveness in laughter. Lincoln’s visit to thecemetery ultimately results in a wave of transubstantiation, suggesting thathis presidency be regarded as a moment of national redemption. Lincoln’s loveis literally enlightening—this is where the novel caresses allegory.

It touches upon horror at twopoints—one in the “real” world of Lincoln’s grief, the other in the funhouseafterlife. The episode of grief feels contrived. The ghosts enter Lincoln’sconsciousness and experience his sorrow. With their help, he experiences thetransitory nature of all things: “Two passing temporarinesses developedfeelings for one another. / Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond” (244).These thoughts help him to let Willie go, and in that act the ghosts encountertheir own loss, which allows them to give up their burdens. For a moment eachghost puts aside their individualized lusts and collective prejudices. For ourchief narrator, Bevins, this kindness is an act of democracy. Upon enteringLincoln, he glimpses the Civil War: “Across the sea fat kings watched and weregleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down Southsimilar kings watched), and if it went off the rails . . . well, it would besaid (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself. / Well, the rabblecould. The rabble would. / He would lead the rabble in managing. / This thingwould be won” (308). The real-world grief sustains the national allegory, butas a result the sensation of grief is hollowed out.

The other moment of horror is muchmore powerful. It occurs near the center of the novel, when Reverend EverlyThomas delivers the book’s longest monologue. He is stuck in the bardo notbecause of his attachment to earthly pleasures, but because of his fear ofChrist’s judgment. His story is among the best sequences Saunders has written:a fantastic satire on that strand of the American Gothic we associate withJonathan Edwards’ sermons. Thomas waits in line to be admitted through thepearly gates. It is quite a bit like the line at airport security. He watchesas St.Peter and some angels screen those ahead of him:

Quickcheck, said Christ’s emissary from his seat at the diamond table.

The beingon the right held the mirror up before the red-beared fellow. The being on theleft reached into the red-beared man’s chest and, with a deft and somehow apologeticmovement, extracted the man’s heart, and placed it on the scale.

The beingon the right checked the mirror. The being on the left checked the scale. (190)

To one screened passenger, the gatesof heaven open—to another, hell. By the time you are at the checkpoint, it’stoo late to escape judgment. Thomas flees not because he is afraid of theoutcome, but of the mercilessness of the act of judgement. It’s an AlthusserianChrist: the hailing is the horror. That’s not to say that the hell we glimpseisn’t horrific—but I’ll leave that for the reader to discover.

For now, I draw two conclusions.First, like E. T. A. Hoffmann or Shirley Jackson, Saunders is a weird comedian,rather than, like Lovecraft or Wharton, a tragedian. Second, that his comedyreverses the “cosmic indifference” associated with Lovecraft’s racist existentialism.In Saunders’ world, caring is everything. The impossible thing is God. Thisrealization, in the words of Lincoln, as reported by an African-American ghost,so neatly reverses the politics of Cthulhu, I can’t help but think that itsintentional: “We must see God not as a Him (some linear rewarding fellow)but an IT, a great beast beyond our understanding, who wants something from us,and we must give it, and all we may control is the spirit in which we give it .. . What IT wants, it seems, for now, is blood, more blood, and to alter thingsfrom what they are, to what IT wills they should be…” (310).Here the horror demanded by the inhuman god is waged in the name of blackliberation. Lincoln the Emancipator, Saunders wages, is born in this moment ofeldritch torment.

As Metafiction

Its fantastic afterlife is only one ofthe novel’s weird aspects. It also enjoys considerable formal weirdness. AsI’ve been arguing throughout these reviews, since Don Quixote, weirdfiction is notable for a genre-confounding (yet genre-defining) metafictionalplayfulness. The weirdness of fiction is frequently evoked by texts thatconfound the normative forms of “mainstream” realist novels. Among the mostprominent examples are Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr,with its alternating chapters of human and cat narratives; Poe’s TheNarrative of Arthur Gordan Pym, which claims to be a true account ofAntarctic exploration; Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice-Realm, which treatsPym as though it were real; Nabokov’s Pale Fire, whichmasquerades as a textual exegesis; and Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland andthe End of the World, in which alternating chapters occur in differentgenres (detective sci/fi and fantasy). Another contemporary novel that fitsthis category, Michael Cisco’s Unlangauge, will be discussed in a laterpost. Lincoln in the Bardo juxtaposes a factual world, composed ofactual and imaginary excerpts from histories of Lincoln, with a fantasy world (thecemetery at night) which takes the form of an awkward script. Alternatingchapters immerse us in either the world of historical verities or the world offantastic drama. As Charles puts it, the book “confoundsour expectations of what a novel should look and sound like.” Kakutani explainshow “Saunders intercuts facts and semi-facts (culled from books and newsaccounts) in a collage-like narrative.”

The collage of observations liftedfrom historical texts is strange and edifying. At least since “CivilWarLand in BadDecline,” which is narrated by a “verisimilitude inspector,” Saunders has beenfascinated by earnest absurdity of historical reconstruction; this element ofthe novel immerses us fully within the experience his previous work evokes. Saundersbegins the novel by undermining factual reconstructions of the Lincolnhousehold. He does this by juxtaposing minute observations from competingaccounts of the night that Willie Lincoln died. Chapter V begins with sixstatements about the moon, presumably gleaned from letters, diaries, and othercredible historical accounts:

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Many guests especially recalled thebeautiful moon that shone that evening. –In “A Season of War and Loss,” by AnnBrighney.

In several accounts of the evening,the brilliance of the moon is remarked upon. – In “Long Road to Glory,” byEdward Holt.

A common feature of these narrativesis the gold moon, hanging quaintly above the scene. – In “White House Soirees:An Anthology,” by Bernadette Evon.

There was no moon that night and thesky was heavy with clouds. –Wickett, op. cit.

A fat green crescent hung above themad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly. –In “My Life,” byDolores P. Leventrop.

The full moon that night wasyellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire. –Sloane, op. cit.(19)

The moon, of course, is the perfect choice for prying openthe Pandora’s box of historical facticity. It is both the symbol ofinconstancy, the harbinger of illusion, and the most obvious natural nocturnalphenomenon—an event that should be capable of verification. By emphasizing thehistorical divergences from a singular narrative, Saunders invites us to put allthe documentary sections under scrutiny. This is a move worthy of Poe, for itachieves an effect that is quite the opposite of its initial appearance. When,later in the novel, we are given several glimpses of Lincoln on his way to andfrom the cemetery—eyewitness accounts that testify to the “fact” of thePresident’s midnight visit to his son’s sepulcher—we are prepared to accepttheir fallibility—which makes it all the more credible.

Unfortunately, the ghostly drama is presented using the sametechnique: we are given a text and then its author. In my excerpts so far, Ihave omitted this aspect of the novel, but I will now provide a passage. Here,Bevins, Vollman and Thomas bear witness to a moment when the pleasures of theworld are breaking through:

The happy mob of children gathered about a tremendous vat ofboiling chocolate, and dear Miss Bent, stirring it, making fond noises at us,as if we were kittens. –roger begins iii

My God, what a thing! To fine oneself thus expanded! –hansvollman

How had we forgotten? All those happy occasions? –thereverend everly thomas

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’sprimary reason for staying; een to the exclusion of all else.—roger bevins iii

One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tellone’s story. –hans vollman

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(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and thinkit.) –the reverend everly Thomas (255)

The goal, I suppose, is to present a fully “dialogic”novel—one in which every event is gleaned partially through multipleeyewitnesses, and therefore can only be understood by deciphering theobservations of competing discourses. This is the most avant-gardeaspect of Saunders weirdness, since it attempts to deconstruct the first-personor focalized omniscient narrative of more conventional novels: shades of Woolf,Joyce, Faulkner (not to mention “The Sandman”). The dialogic quality can bewonderful—the shimmery instability of speech acts—especially as they contort toappease a presumed interlocuter–has always been Saunders’ forte. But theinscriptions are awkward and exhausting; the reader soon wearies of waiting tothe end of each utterance to find out who is speaking. I found myselfconstantly performing a little eye scan motion to pick up the name listed atthe end of the speech before reading it: a problem easily solved by thetypographic conventions of the stage play, long since in existence. And the cemeteryscenes are unquestionably dramatic. But although each character speaks, oftento the other characters, because it is a novel, they must also narrate what theother characters are doing. It’s like a play in which several characters aretasked with telling us what is happening on stage. I applaud the originality ofthis mode, but it generates a peculiar tedium–like that which one encounterswhen reading (not watching) Ionesco.

Saunders’ Weird Style

The advantage of the novel-scripthybridity is the priority it gives to Saunders’ odd and sometimes marvelousstyle. The notably original style I evoked at the beginning emerges fromcountless utterance in which Saunders’ characters, deeply embedded within particularsituations, try to provide their presumptive auditors with observations andinsights that strain their discursive capabilities. They are always, withintheir own multitude of possible life worlds, experiencing weirdness. This iswhat their speech acts reflect. Expressions of jargon-inflected, earnestbefuddlement and hyper-specific characterizations are the dramatic andnovelistic pillars on which the Saunders brand is built. His charactersconstantly tax syntax and invent neologisms in order to describe phenomena beyondtheir control and / or comprehension. The ghosts in this story are constantlytrying to explain their own impossible situation; “walk-skimming” is the mostmemorable phrase, as though a ghost couldn’t quite account for its own floating.In a rather damning review in the Atlantic (March2017) Caleb Crain observes this penchant for “a hypercolloquial idiolect”and argues that “sadism and sentimentality” competein Saunders’ prose, resulting in an “antic pastiche” that“rivals the Victorians at death kitsch.” Mallonoffers a kinder observation, noting that the novelist “likes to createdesperate people trying their best to be dignified and gentle.” Sanders observes “a mutually reinforced cognitivedissonance.” Each of these phrases helps to triangulate the singularquality of Saunders’ prose.

At its root, it’ssatirical. In The Fantastic, Todorov has good reason to draw a boundarybetween the affect-laden realism of fantasy and the intellectual operations ofallegory. Satire manifests in the uncertain margins between these modes.Obviously, given the fantastic nature of the creature from which its name derives,satire has always entwined closely with weirdness. From Rabelais, Voltaire,Sterne and Swift to Lewis Carol, Ambrose Bierce, Nikolai Gogol, FlanneryO’Connor, Roald Dahl, or Poppy Z. Brite, the peculiar and absurd, the monstrousand miraculous, has been a resource for satirists. But it works against itself,as such. Satire sublimates the visceral quality of “cosmic horror,” turningterror into scorn, the gasp of an encounter with the impossible into a knowinglaugh.

In Lincoln in the Bardo,the style is driven by two forms of humor. The first is a the subtle, “high”comedy that results from grandiloquence. Hans Vollmann is particularlysusceptible: “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect thisvisitation had on our community” (66) he says at one point—a phrase that enactswhat it describes. A similar kind of comedy occurs when the narrative findsoccasion to laugh at its own efforts at transubstantiation. An angel tellsBetsy Baron, “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore”; “See, I don’tget that,” Betsy replies.

The other, less subtlemode is verbal vaudeville, as in this banter between the besotted Barons; notethat I’ve taken the liberty called for by the text and treated it as a script:

Betsy Baron: Remember that time we left little Eddie at theParade Ground?

Eddie Baron: After the Polk watdoyoucallit.

Betsy: We’d had a few.

Eddie: Didn’t hurt him.

Betsy: Might’ve helpedhim.

Eddie: Made him tougher.

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Betsy: If a horse steps onyou, you do not die.

Eddie: You might limp abit.

Betsy: And after that bescared of horses.

Eddie: And dogs.

Betsy: But wanderingaround in a crowd for five hours? Does not kill you.

Eddie: What I think? Ithink it helps you. Because then you know how to wander around in a crowd forfive hours without crying or panicking.

Betsy: Well, he cred andpanicked a little. Once he got home. (85-6)

This is Saunders theworking-class satirist at his best. Shades of Gilbert and Sullivan, Abbot andCostello, Didi and Gogo, Lucy and Ricky, Cheech and Chong. “These were theBarons,” Roger Bevins tells us a few lines later, sounding exactly like avaudeville mc asking for applause.

Kakutani’s right toobserve that “The supernatural chatter can growtedious at times”; this is Saunders[MR1]’ firstnovel; at times it feels premature. It doesn’t have a novel’s scope, despiteits grand themes. It feels like a novella that’s been puffed up (Saunders’ bestnovella is “Bounty,” and his long short stories often share a breadth and tempowith Gogol’s). It deserves its length when the antics are brought to earth. Bevins,Saunders’ chief narrator, is the true protagonist. He’s an aesthetician, in thesense meant by Hoffmann; his spirit (dis)embodies democracy. He articulates amodernist sublime that finds expression in the “stuff” of ordinary life. Unlikethe other characters, who can’t give up some singular wish or desire, Bevinscan’t give up multiplicity. Life, in its endless particularity, itsembeddedness within itself, is the pleasure that keeps him from heaven. He won’tforgo “Such things as, for example:

two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; fourparallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s middayflank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bouncenine gut-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warminggriddle (and early morning pot-clang and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearbyharbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling,chime-inciting breeze that cause, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus ofchildish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like a dozen—

Saunders’ realization that this list may only be interrupted iscredit to a keen perception of the multitude. It is this speech that causesBevins to become a “fleshly bouquet” of sensory organs. The grotesque beauty ofmultiplicity is his sublime. In this, his work resembles that of Hoffmann’s, Poe’s,Wharton’s, Joan Lindsay’s, Mielville’s, or VandeerMeer’s. It is unquestionablyweird.

NEXT: At halftime we interrupt thisbroadcast to review a previously unscheduled weird novel: Jon Bassoff’s TheDrive-Thru Crematorium (2019), published by Eraserhead press.

[MR1]

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FAQs

What is the point of Lincoln in the Bardo? ›

The novel takes place during and after the death of Abraham Lincoln's son William "Willie" Wallace Lincoln and deals with the president's grief at his loss. The bulk of the novel, which takes place over the course of a single evening, is set in the bardo—an intermediate space between life and rebirth.

Is Lincoln in the Bardo hard to read? ›

Lincoln In The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent.

Is Lincoln in the Bardo a good book? ›

An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: Lincoln in the Bardo is hilariously funny, horribly sad, and utterly surprising. If you can fight past an initial uncertainty about the identity of its narrators, you may find that it's the best thing you've read in years.

Is Lincoln in the Bardo a movie? ›

Today The New York Times published its latest VR film, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” The film is a companion to George Saunders' new eponymous novel that tells the story of a grieving president as he spends the night in the cemetery where his beloved son lies in rest.

What was a sick box? ›

Lincoln in the Bardo is populated by ghosts who don't know they're dead -- "sick box" is their term for a coffin. They're confused, just as TV psychics describe ghosts as being unaware of their own deaths and perpetually stuck re-enacting some momentous sorrow.

Are the sources in Lincoln in the Bardo real? ›

Throughout Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses chapters packed with quotes from historical sources. He gives citations for these historical sources and some are legit — like Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln, for instance. But other sources are made up.

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