Wednesday, June 20, 2018

How did the book club go? Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

How did the book club go? Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.

Is a novel long-awaited if you never thought it would happen? Saunders move from cult status* to mainstream phenomenon came with Tenth of December, which The New York Times proclaimed in an early January edition to be the best book of the year. Though kind of a cocky move (and a publicist's dream), at year's end, the book indeed made a lot of best-of lists. And then Saunders followed-it up with his first novel, which wound up not only making best-of lists, but won the Man Booker Prize, the second American to win in only two years when they were able to qualify. No wonder there's a contingent that would like to see the United States kicked out again.

Every book group who tackles Lincoln in the Bardo knows that it is the story takes place in 1862, after the death of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie. Talk was that Willie was temporarily kept at a crypt, and in his grief, Lincoln visited multiple times. The book takes place on one visit. What is well-known about the book is that the dialogue is from various ghosts. This fact has taken center stage as the audio book version of Lincoln in the Bardo has received more than one award. They used 166 actors for the voices, including the power couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, David Sedaris, Don Cheadle, Bill Hader, and well, you can see the rest in Entertainment Weekly.

Another structural achievement of Saunders book is in the non-dialogue part. Our book club (like many) has read a good amount of historical fiction and often discusses the research that goes into the work. We often note how the research is used - did the research set the framework for the novel or was it used to fill in gaps afterwards after the author free-wheeled the narrative, E.L. Doctorow style? And most notably, did the author keep control of the research or did it overwhelm the narrative. And one should note that's a matter of taste - many readers love historical fiction that might be more correctly called "historical fact-ion."

In Lincoln, George Saunders takes all the reference material and crazy-quilt stitches them into the story, in the exact wording, references and all. I had never seen this before and thought it made a fascinating counterpoint to the main narrative, which was speculative in nature.

I wasn't sure how our book club, which this month had thirteen attendees, would react. We had a spirited discussion about how Saunders wove the historical narrative into the fantastical story. We had a lot to say about how he touched on race, class, and gender issues. There was a lot of talk about the Lincoln family and the Civil War, and how their personal story fit into the larger narrative. I'd say about eight of them were very enthusiastic about the book, while the rest were on the fence or failed to be engaged.

This is one of those books that drives the cultural conversation in literature, and I use the book club as a way of checking off several of these titles that I didn't get to in hardcover. I think any book club that includes "important" or "adventurous" in its mission statement (you all have mission statements, right?) should have Lincoln in the Bardo on their reading list. And for those groups where a good portion does not want to read something they feel uses the verb "to tackle," but a vocal minority wants to visit the Bardo, maybe it's best to wait for the movie version, also being helmed by Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.

*George Saunders visited the Downer Avenue location of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops for one of his early collections. I am pretty confident at this point that we've hosted several authors who one day we'll look back and say, how the heck did we get them to come?

Don't forget about book club Monday!
--First Monday: In-Store Lit Group, 7 pm at Boswell*
--Second Monday: SF Book Club, 7 pm at Boswell
--Third Monday: Books and Beer Book Club, 7 pm at Cafe Hollander
--Fourth Monday: Mystery Book Club, 7 pm at Boswell

*September's meeting always falls on Labor Day.  This year we're meeting August 27 to discuss Sing, Unburied, Sing. Our complete schedule is on the Boswell book club page.

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