not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
This post is taken from my Goodreads review:
You should read this book. It is funny, and sad, and capital-I Important, absolutely necessary for these times, and at once Saunders’s most personal work and the one with the most popular appeal.
What’s it about? It starts from a real event: In early 1862, with the Civil War beginning to rage (Antietam was still 6 months away), William Lincoln, the president’s third son, died at the age of 12. There are historical accounts that state that, after the funeral, Abraham Lincoln visited his son’s tomb, took the body out of its resting place, and held it for a time.
The novel takes this as its jumping-off point, narrating Lincoln’s visit from the point of view of the other restless spirits who inhabit the graveyard where Willie Lincoln is buried. There’s certain rules the dead have to follow in the book, and watching the novel create and then explore the implications of these rules reminds me of a lot of fantasy and sci-fi series that seems to be popular. While the President’s visit is important to the events of the novel, the actual story is more concerned with questions about how humans cope with suffering and disappointment and the fact of their own mortality, and what we’re supposed to do when confronted with it.
Now, I know. That description may not sound very appealing! The subject matter seems morbid, the stated aims seem self-important and well-trod territory, and generally people don’t seem to be big fans of novels that are set in a single location over a short period of time. This kind of book seems like a slog, and I can tell you that it took me about 10 hours to read the whole thing and that still won’t move you, because maybe you don’t read as quickly as me, maybe you won’t like it as much, and anyway don’t I have a really weird taste in books? Maybe even a little undiscriminating, the type of person who likes paperback bestsellers AND experimental avant-garde novels AND literary classics, and at some point you start to wonder if I’m just a bit of an easy lay, reading-wise? I mean, isn’t this my fifth five-star review in a row?
Well, okay, yes, it is, and maybe I do like a lot of books other people don’t like, and maybe part of that has to do with my general love of reading infecting my opinion of the book, BUT, I try to keep actual “oh my God you need to read this!”-type recommendations scarce. Everyone has a reading list, no one is as far along in it as they’d like, and I try to be mindful of this and only bring up novels that I genuinely think you’ll enjoy reading, because I know that one bad recommendation, and you’ll probably never take another one from me again.
So keeping that in mind, READ THIS BOOK. Don’t like “literary” novels where nothing ever happens, and prefer to read sci-fi or fantasy or crime or horror or other novels where you are at least guaranteed a basic amount of excitement? READ THIS BOOK, it’s got a story that I suspect is meant to appeal to fans of genre fiction. Don’t have much time to spend reading books these days? READ THIS BOOK, it doesn’t take very long, and it’s consistently entertaining. Don’t like books about death, or books that might leave you feeling sad? READ THIS BOOK, it makes a good argument for considering otherwise, and the ending is among the most uplifting things I’ve ever read. Only like to read “important,” award-winning literature? READ THIS BOOK, it’s going to win all the awards and you’ll have a copy without a medal on the front, telling everyone you found out about this one early.
It is late February, and Lincoln in the Bardo is the only direct recommendation I am going to give, as far as what books to read, for the rest of the year. I use it on this book happily. If you want another one, just for you, you have to read this first.