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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Skip Saunders's novel and read his stories

OK, so what's good about George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo? First, it highlights an moment of passage in Lincoln's life that may be an illumination to those who have never read a Lincoln biography: the death of his older son, Willie, which occurred as the Lincoln's were hosts at a state dinner n the White House. I think GS's account of these events, told through the "voices" of several historians (Carl Sandburg, Doris K Goodwin, et al.) and from contemporary documents (including letters sent to Lincoln). He did his research and, to his credit, wears it lightly; though I have read several Lincoln books, I was glad to be reminded of the depth of his sorrow (I think the episode of his riding a horse to the cemetery to view Willie's crypt is accurate), the incredible hatred toward Lincoln by American's from N and S (the Civil War was going poorly, and many thought he had reached too far), and the curious contradictions in some of the descriptions of Lincoln. Second, among the many voices in the chorus that tell the story of Lincoln's visit to the cemetery, the voices of the dead slaves are particularly powerful; he does a great job giving us a sense of the oppression, hatred, fear, and sorrow that the slaves felt - important to read and be reminded, though obviously this is well-trodden ground, w/ particularly powerful examples from TV (Roots) and movies (12 Years a Slave, e.g.) as guideposts. But then - seriously - this novel is a mess, most of all because there's no way to comprehend who the chorus of voices represent: Yes, they're dead spirits, but why have these particularly spirits been sent to a limbo or purgatory? They are not clearly enough distinguished from one another as "characters," we never understand their motives or goals, in short there's no logical or even illogical system that explains their presence and their actions. Worse, GS doesn't build any suspense around these spirits; toward the end, someone bursts out to them that they are spirits of the dead. They didn't know that? OK, maybe. But why not do something to surprise us, give us some realization at the end of the novel. The whole construct seems to me an idea that was poorly framed and never worked out - and I believe the largely favorable reviews are a tribute to GS's accomplishments in short fiction. Pass this by, and read his stories.

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