About half-way through George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, I began to wonder if Saunders wasn't inspired by a particular episode of The Twilight Zone titled "The Passersby." In it, Confederate soldiers walk along a road, past a woman's house where one wounded soldier stops in search of a place to rest while journeying home after the (Civil) war. It quickly becomes clear that these are dead soldiers on a final march between life and death, in a kind of bardo of Rod Serling's design. While Willie Lincoln doesn't appear in the episode, Papa Lincoln does as the "last casualty of the war." It goes on to show the struggle of coming to terms with one's own death, and being faced with the choice of remaining in purgatory or moving on to the next stage—whatever that may be.
The idea of a transitory stage is age-old; the period setting is familiar to us Americans even in these 150 years separated from the Civil War—the war that still defines our national psyche, that tried to account for this nation's original sin. So it got me wondering, what can Saunders bring to fairly well-traveled terrain?
It turns out, not a whole lot, unfortunately. The form of the novel lacks necessity to tell the story—it's a kind of polyvocal dual narrative that never seems to find its focus. In the bardo, Hans and Roger chorus the song of Willie's journey from life to death in an intriguing way, but ultimately, while reading, I found myself not paying much attention or care to whose name was tagging each single line of text, and rather just reading them as a unified, singular voice. This isn’t hard to do because there’s virtually no strong distinction between Hans’s voice over Roger’s. So reading it this way didn't really matter much for enjoyment, understanding, or even the functioning of the narrative. I’d be interested in hearing arguments for why the polyvocal Hans/Roger narrative device is necessary, though, I just didn’t see it.
The second narrative is half-baked, though perhaps the most innovative piece of the pie, wherein fake non-fiction snippets coalesce around specific moments preceding Willie's arrival in the bardo in an attempt to weave the story of his premature death. However, these snippets of historical writing can't agree on basic details and facts, calling into question the greater narrative surrounding the events. But, because the implications of false narrative and "alternative facts" (to apply a buzz phrase) don't have ripples throughout the text, it falls flat, surviving merely as points in the book where you do that laughing thing where you just breathe out your nose a little harder (not to say there aren't guffaws in the book—there are).
At its best moments, the comedy reaches the bar of some of Pynchon's greatest hits in Mason & Dixon, achieving the ultimate of reading-pleasure. At its worst, a fun ghost story with dick jokes, hallucinatory imagery and a cast of oddball characters with classic Saunders-esque iconic idiosyncrasies.
Despite it's apparent lack of ingenuity, Saunders is still is able to make his mark with his signature humor, his precise and beautiful evocation of sadness (in that special way that doesn't feel trite or unwarranted or undeserved) making this an Entertaining but perhaps minor read. At the risk of bordering on pretentiousness, my experience with this book is maybe the problem of trying to read so much "great literature" and "big books," that when good ones come along, such as this worthwhile tome from Saunders, it just feels a little lacking.
To be clear: You're going to enjoy the time you spent with Lincoln in the Bardo, but you probably won't leave it changed too much.