lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I haven't officially been on the Saunders bandwagon for long (I'd read his short pieces in places like The New Yorker but didn't read Tenth of December until last year) and so, lucky me, I had a relatively short anticipation time for his first full length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. 

Here's the thing with Saunders: before you actually read him, it's easy to become leery of all the highly excited talk about his unique/odd/strange way of writing. There have been others who have been touted for their unique/odd/strange way of writing (all different than Saunders, just that they fall into that talked-about-for-it-way) that I, personally, haven't been into, like Kerouac, Christopher Moore, and others I just know I'm not thinking about right now. 

Fortunately, all the talk about Saunders didn't discourage me from wanting to read more by him (I'm sure the shorter pieces encouraged me not to become dissuaded). It's true that at least with his fiction, there's always an acclimatization period for me and this remained true with Lincoln. 

It's disorienting to start, confusing, somewhat vaguely discouraging because the reader doesn't yet have a sense of empathy to the characters to sustain them through not understanding exactly what's happening here. As well, in Lincoln, we're introduced to a bunch of different people right off, and it takes just a bit of time to understand they're mostly all dead people. Wait, let me fix that - they're mostly all people in their sick-boxes, at least that's how they all choose to see it. And while the primary story is centered around the death of Willie Lincoln and the visiting of his... sick-box... by his father, Abraham Lincoln, the gleaming bits here are the quieter stories of some of the dead and the reasons they refer to their of their current states of being as within sick-boxes (rather than coffins). 

Where Saunders differs from some others who make a name for themselves by their proclaimed uniqueness is that Saunders absolutely and concretely backs up all that posturing with strong, empathic characters and storytelling and world building that are awesome in their depth. I'm finding that while reading Saunders, I'm impressed by the cleverness but after reading him, I'm impressed and surprised by how how long the work sticks with me and continues to chip away at my emotions and thoughts.

I know a lot of readers are both excited and cautious about Saunders' first published full-length work. There's no need for caution - if you've read Saunders before and know you like or even adore his work, you need no hesitation with Lincoln in the Bardo. Deeply intelligent and shallowly crass, flighty and powerful, focused on the destructive grief of a father (and the grief of his dead son) and also the whimsy of people who, even after death, are still focused on the facile bits of their life: money, sex, race, appearances. 

Lincoln in the Bardo will be published this Tuesday, February 14th by Random House, who provided my advanced copy.