Lincoln in the Bardo is an “experimental novel” that actually took home the 2017 Man Booker Prize, and it really is the kind of book that critics would love. It’s brilliantly written. It’s smart, and funny, and it is full of pathos, and the premise is brilliant: Basically, the book grew out of a story that Saunders heard about how Abraham Lincoln would return to the crypt of his son Willie after he died of typhoid fever to hold the body. The book is primarily told from the point of view of a bunch of ghosts. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but they find hope in the fact that Lincoln returns to see his son, and observing this forces them to confront a lot of realities, namely that they are dead.
Saunders is not a novelist — he’s a primarily a short story writer, and a brilliant one, at that — and Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a lot of short stories interweaved around themes of death and dying and regret and moving on. It’s lovely, and at times heartbreaking, and at other times, wry and funny.
But did I like it? That’s an entirely different question. I appreciated it. It’s an experimental novel, and I really did appreciate how it disregarded the the novelistic form. I was also fascinated by the history of it. But I also found it difficult to engage with. I wouldn’t call it inaccessible so much as I’d call it scattershot, and it takes a while to recognize exactly what’s going on. I have a tendency to go into books cold, but after reading about 50 pages, I had to read a few reviews just so I could figure out what the hell was going on because it’s not exactly apparent. Even once I was able to get into it, the through line is not strong enough to keep readers engrossed by all the former lives who make up the narrators. I checked out a few times, even as I was able to recognize a brilliant turn of phase or a clever joke.
Again, it’s a great book, and Saunders really is an amazing writer, but I guess I’d say that Lincoln in the Bardo just wasn’t for me. I like a great plot and compelling character, but Lincoln in the Bardo is more concerned with the art of of itself.