Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Matterlightblooming Phenomenon

George Saunders won the Booker Prize in 2017 for his experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo. 

Set in a graveyard, young Willie Lincoln, son of the sitting President has arrived and is placed in a crypt. Not yet realising that he is dead, Willie meets Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and other ghostly inhabitants, all of whom believe they are merely sick, lying in their 'sick-boxes' and will one day recover. Each is disfigured by unfulfilled desires, refusing to succumb to the 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' where they move on to the 'other place'.

Lincoln visits his embalmed son in his crypt, holds him tight and weeps for his loss. His grief is all consuming and told in extracts and quotes from numerous books. These commentators judge the Lincolns for holding a party while their son was ill, and question the President's behaviour.

My first attempt at reading the book was unsuccessful. I found it difficult to read because of the many different characters and the way in which the name of the speaker appears after the text. Reading it in fits and starts on my daily commute, I couldn't get into the rhythm of the narrative and identifying who said what. Frustrated, I tossed it aside, but for some strange reason it still called out to me.

I tried something different the second time around. I downloaded the audiobook on Audible and read alongside. Hearing Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and a cast of over a hundred read the story aloud was so much more engaging and allowed me to appreciate Saunders' language and wit.

This is an ambitious novel. Written like a play or a script, I particularly loved how Saunders would  have a dialogue between Bevins and Vollman and then suddenly have them quoting each other. Bawdy characters, wonderfully dark and saucy, mix with the more serious and serene.

More remarkable were the chapters made up of quotes - real and fake - from various sources. Many of these were voices purporting to be of Lincoln's time - notes from socialites and householders, soldiers and congressmen - who were critical of Lincoln and his politics. The audacity of creating fake academic sources, the setting of the bardo, the characters and the writing style all showcase Saunders' genius as a writer and his willingness to creatively experiment with our ideas of a novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a divisive novel - with lovers and haters passionately opposed. I can't say I loved this novel, but I am so pleased that I persevered.