Acclaimed short-story author George Saunders’s first novel is extraordinary – I mean that quite literally. In a long and varied reading life, I haven’t read anything quite like it.
The novel is based on the true, and almost unbearably sad, story that when President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died, Lincoln went several times at night into the cemetery where the child was buried, to grieve and to hold his body.
Beginning at a state reception held by Lincoln as Willie lies dying upstairs, the book gives multiple narrators a sentence or a paragraph each to report on events. It isn’t clear which are fictitious sources and which are real (research revealed it’s a mixture of both). Viewing an event through different people’s eyes, particularly when they occasionally flatly contradict each other, is far more illuminating than a single voice can ever be. But it risks a restive reader starting to wonder when the authoritative voice of the narrative proper will start, as I did. Any discomfort doesn’t last long, however.
If you don’t already listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast, you really should – the calibre of the guest authors is predictably high, and unlike on radio or TV shows, they’re given time to speak at length on their work. In the episode from 10 February, which features Saunders, he explains that this technique of employing multiple narrators was a practical solution to the problem of telling a story mostly set in a graveyard – I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that most of these voices are those of Willie’s dead companions in the cemetery. They inhabit the bardo of the title, a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the space between life and death where the spirits of the recently deceased, and form a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the action.
Formal innovation is often offputting in novels – just tell me the story! (Virginia Woolf always excepted.) But it’s a bold, elegant solution to the problem Saunders set himself, and it becomes an essential element of the story – I found myself looking forward to the next appearance of particular characters.
It’s a powerful book, and funny, and tragic – and recommended.