Had you told me this novel would not put a priority on character development, abandon all signs of traditional sentence structure, and let the historical context be a backdrop rather than a focal point I would have told you this won’t have a big impact on me. My first experience with Saunders, his first novel, is the kind of book that makes you question your own taste. As soon as I feel I have a solid grip on the types of books I gravitate toward, things like this come along and ruin my formula for picking out books. And I say this positively. I picked this one up partly due to the premise– the death of Abe Lincoln’s son Willie, who becomes stuck in a purgatory between life and afterlife. Then the amount of conversation surrounding it added to my interest. Everyone seems to have differing opinions about it and, well… I wanted to form my own. I knew it would be experimental going in, but I didn’t know the format would be quite as insane as it is.
The novel weaves together two different formats. The first–cited excerpts of actual accounts from people who surrounded Abe during the time his son got sick and the time that followed his son’s death. The second– other souls that are stuck with Willie as he views the world, watching his father and the living from the state of in between called the Bardo. The first format brought a sense of reality to the situation. The grieving process Abe went through is factual. While in the middle of dealing with monumental times in U.S. history, including the backlash from many citizens who at the time didn’t believe in the things he waged war over, he had to cope with the loss of a son. The second format brought out both quirky hilarity and an overwhelming realness to the lives we aspire to live. Living with the situations we are dealt and being able to move on from our past. The book simultaneously achieves a deep look into the human condition while also being fun, wacky, and absurd. All the while it was cloaked in an eery atmosphere that I couldn’t get enough of. In the sense of being both absurd and real, I could help being reminded of books like Slaughterhouse-Five that are able to achieve both of these things in a matter of pages. I found that this book is one I can see getting better on each reread. I think reading this book in longer sittings may also be beneficial because the flow of the conversation and thoughts of the ghosts as they interrupt each other in short bursts becomes second nature over time, which is why the format was a success for me. It wouldn’t have the same charm without it, nor would the impact on many occasions be as quick to the chest.
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Date Finished: April 19, 2018