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Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

This month, all three major American magazines feature reviews of the new (and first) novel by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The reviewer in the Atlantic pans it, saying that “Sadism and sentimentality preside over the novel hand in hand”  and complains that “The book’s crux . . . is either impossible or trivial.”  He expresses a nostaligia for Saunders’ early stories in which “The Gonzo humour” was  “more lively and unpredictable, though his cast of characters was limited to brutes and sad sacks, and the openness of the sadism could be a little hard to take.”

(To my mind, this is where the reviewer, novelist Caleb Crain, gives himself away a bit — because to me, Saunders’ characters are not just “brutes and sad sacks” at all— the man and boy in Tenth of December, for example, are thoroughly memorable and complexly sympathetic.)

The review in Harpers begs to differ, beginning with the words “George Saunders is the most humane American writer working today.  He need not ask, as Sheila Heti did in the title of her novel, how a person should be.  He knows.  A person should be courageous and hopeful, generous and kind….And — this is where it gets interesting — a story should be as compassionate as a person.”  Christine Smallwood’s review describes the novel  — a ghost story involving the deceased son of Abraham Lincoln — with frank admiration, describing the overall effect as “dirty, and comforting, and sad”.

The review in the New Yorker is by far the lengthiest. Thomas Mallon devotes nearly a page to the back story of Willie’s death, then lauds Saunders for producing “a ferocious, keenly felt, and sometimes comic sturggle over Willie’s spirit while he is in a Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist  transition from death to rebirth”.  His approach is to situate the novel in historical context with reference to other books about Lincoln, and he finds in Saunders’ novel “an imaginative truth in keeping with a number of startling and benevolent short stories he has written, ones that end with characters reaching a low point and then pulling themselves back up.”

Even Esquire features a short piece on Saunders this month — as a writer and family man. Lots of buzz, and I hear a rumour that Wordfest is bringing Saunders to Calgary this spring.