Authors struggle with cohesion when they use multiple narrators to tell their story. In his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders attempts to weave a tale around the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie as told by three wraiths in a graveyard — I would say only to limited success except Saunders recently won the coveted Man Booker Prize for his efforts.
Ostensibly the book deals with Lincoln’s grief upon the death of his son, weighted further by the horrors of the Civil War and his struggle with whether to continue the fight at the cost of more lives. The night following the burial, Lincoln visits the crypt of his son in despair.
Very little of the story is told in direct narrative, but through excerpts from (real or fake) historical documents and (primarily) through the wraiths – souls earth-bound and unable or unwilling to leave. I found them to be so outrageous in characterization (and joined by a host of similar odd ghosts) that they formed a barrier (not a conduit) to Lincoln’s pain.
Like most literary novels, the book has layers of thematic material, and various reviewers point out that the story is not about Lincoln and Willie in particular; that they are only vehicles to deliver the real message of the human condition: that humans are trapped in life and in death by sins and flaws and unresolved issues.
It is difficult to access that theme, or more importantly for me, to even care about the Lincoln tragedy because of the “circus” atmosphere created by the wraiths and friends in their clownish and often boorish failures at either living or dying. They remind me of Shakespeare’s odd characters sprinkled throughout his comedies — but unfortunately Saunders’ wraiths dominate rather than provide comedic relief.
To make matters worse, Saunders uses the host of ghosts to preach on morality — a questioning of war and its human cost, a diatribe against slavery — but the efforts are clumsy at best. I found myself recoiling from certain passages at their onset: “Oh no, here comes another sermon.”
In his very supportive New York Times review of Lincoln in the Bardo, Colson Whitehead claims that experienced readers should have no problem navigating through the book’s odd structure, and compared it to Spoon River Anthology.
That was not my experience.
Spoon River Anthology (Edgar Lee Master’s long narrative poem) is straight-forward. It too takes place in a cemetery, where the souls inhibiting each grave rise to tell their own story. Each narrator is somber, their pain easily accessible, and the underlying lessons on humanity’s flaws a natural conclusion.
Lincoln in the Bardo is disjointed and clangorous and I had to work far too hard to find meaning in the work.