The Rear-View Mirror: Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

In 2017, Eagles on Pogo Sticks ended its ten years of soaring and went into a steep yet controlled ascent. After a quick dip into one of the few remaining phone booths, a suspiciously familiar-looking blog emerged: A Damn Fine Cup of Culture. Now, almost a year after we reinvented ourselves (or, more accurately, revealed ourselves as the cuppaholics we are) we’re launching a weekly feature: The Rear-View Mirror, where each Friday we’ll look at the cultural goodies, whether grande, venti or trenta, that may appear closer than they really are. We’re starting in the year of our (re-)launch, 2017. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Lincoln in the Bardo

Back when I was a student, I was pretty much subscribed to the Booker Prize winners. From Midnight’s Children (which, admittedly, I read more than 15 years after its release) via the likes of The Remains of the Day and The Famished Road, The English Patient and The God of Small Things to Amsterdam and Disgrace, I knew that the winning novels would be well worth reading. When I left university, though, I realised that life is very different when you’re not paid to read literature. After a day at the office doing things other than literary criticism, I found that my brain wasn’t necessarily in much of a state to plonk down with a book, and instead I’d watch an episode of something or play video games for an hour. The Booker Prize lost its appeal as any new books I ordered piled up on one of my Billy shelves. I still enjoy reading a lot, but it’s no longer the thing I do most of the time on most days, it’s something to do before going to bed (if I’m awake enough), over the weekend and especially on holidays.

As a result, I’m no longer as up to date on new novels in English as I used to be. Nonetheless, even like this I was aware of the splash that George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo made. Almost too much so: everyone seemed to love Saunders’ novel to such an extent that I became a bit wary: sometimes a book, film or TV series receives hyperbolic praise primarily because it is timely and puts its finger on something relevant, but as a result their appeal is highly dependent on context: if you’re not part of a particular historical moment, those cultural touchstones can end up feeling somewhat underwhelming in artistic terms.

Still, when even my friend, co-blogger and fellow coffee addict Mege told me how much he’d enjoyed Lincoln at the Bardo, I decided it was time: I’d get this most recent Booker Prize winner – realising that times had changed and these days even Americans (picture me clutching my non-existent pearls!) could win the award.

Lincoln in the Bardo

I’m glad I did, because Lincoln at the Bardo is a beautifully told, polyphonic novel that deftly balances its historical fiction with a more metaphysical premise: it is a story set (mostly) in the afterlife, told by the dead, though they are largely in denial about the reality of their (non-)existence. Saunders’ writing has a lightness of touch that greatly benefits his tale; while death is literally omnipresent in the novel, the melancholy of the tale is complemented by an oddball humour and a surreal strangeness. Lincoln at the Bardo is often ambiguous, but it isn’t smugly vague or woolly about the characters it brings to (after-)life. None of these are self-evident if you’re telling a story based on the death of a twelve-year-old boy, let alone the son of the most iconic American president ever. (Don’t let the orange-haired, tiny-handed buffoon know I just wrote that, or my Twitter account will never know peace again!)

While I’m not really into audiobooks, I’d be amiss not to mention the audio adaptation, which is very much one of those “no expenses were spared” deals: the cast of 166 characters is voiced by a large cast of professional and amateur actors, including Julianne Moore, Rainn Wilson and Susan Sarandon, yet the familiarity of the celebrities doesn’t distract from the story or the characters. The novel is artful, funny and poignant in either format, print and audio performance, and both are well worth the time spent with them. Perhaps I should take this as a good reason to pay more attention to the Booker Prize again!

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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