With his debut novel, American writer George Saunders has not only produced a masterpiece, he’s produced a book so original, unique and bizarre it defies classification. It certainly defies my meagre critical abilities.
It’s 1869 and civil war is tearing the United States apart. The Lincoln of the title is Willie Lincoln, son of the US president who will one day win the war. The boy has succumbed to sickness and is now stuck in the bardo – a state of ghostly purgatory, his spirit tied to the cemetery in which he’s been buried. Abraham, feeling his son is still present in some way, leaves the White House to visit his body. Little does he know he’s surrounded by spirits who have not accepted their fate.
Right out of the gate then, Saunders’ novel melds historical fiction with a quasi-religious ghost story. But it’s not the premise that gives the book its singular power; it’s Saunders’ wild, unrestrained, visionary execution.
The book is comedic yet tragic, grounded but surreal, messy but focused, at times fiercely political, at others completely absurd. It’s a marvel of structure, constantly shifting in perspective and voice and style – sometimes line by line. Reading it is like riding a rollercoaster in the dark; you can’t tell where it’ll take you next, you just careen from left to right to upside down so fast it gives you whiplash. It’s the type of novel that makes you rethink just what a novel can be.
This is the first 2017-published book I’ve read. Expect to hear a lot more about it as it wins every award under the sun – if there’s any justice in the world.
It’s early, but it will take a fine book indeed to knock this from the top of my list for the year.
Next: The gods must be crazy.