Is it okay to dislike Lincoln in the Bardo?

by Jonathan Kile

There’s a great old Jim Gaffigan bit where he talks about how he’ll see a movie way after it’s been “water cooler” talk. And then he’ll try to talk about it with friends, but they’ve long since moved on to new topics. “I just saw Heat,” he says six years after the film’s release. When his friends blow him off, he complains, “I want to talk about it now.”

Well, I just read Lincoln in the Bardo. And I want to talk about it now. I’m talking about short story master George Saunders’ acclaimed debut novel. When this book came out, it was heralded as a literary masterpiece. Saunders was called a genius. Critics peeled away the layers of the story – grief, race, Buddhism, the afterlife – and ran out of words  to lavish praise. More than one reviewer said that it changed their outlook on life. This book sounded like it was right down my alley. Since my health went south and I faced death, I’ve read a lot of books about the meaning of life, various perspectives on myriad religions, and lots of Kerouac. I love to read and I was excited about this one.

For those who aren’t familiar, Lincoln in the Bardo does not contain not traditional storytelling. It’s told through dozens (and dozens and dozens) of spirit voices, and it’s laid out in snippets, with the narrative voice attributed after each section (be it a paragraph, a sentence, a page.) It has been said that it reads like a script and I think that’s being generous. Somewhere I read that the audiobook was the best way to take in the book, with dozens (and dozens and dozens) of celebrity narrators. So shortly after the book was released, I downloaded the audiobook.

Shortly in, I had no idea what was going on. The main issue I had with the audiobook was that it was told in so many different voices, and after each statement, the reader awkwardly cited who was speaking. The problem with this is that there were long passages in which you had no idea who was talking. I quickly gave up.

Fast forward a year or more (to a few weeks ago), I spotted Lincoln in the Bardo available for a free Kindle download through the library. I check out a lot of eBooks through the library. This should have been a hint that a book is overrated when a prize winner and bestseller doesn’t have a 3 month eBook waiting list with the library. Hell, Catch-22 has a 10 week waiting list. I decided to dive in again.

Reading it was easier than the audio book. As you read each portion, the eye can dart to the end of the paragraph to see who is speaking. That is, unless this person is speaking until the next page. Or, worst case scenario, three pages later when I finally get to learn who has been rambling incoherently.

Speaking of rambling incoherently – the spirits in Lincoln in the Bardo are going mad. So much of their rambling is poetic nonsense. It’s by design. All these spirits in limbo are confused and reliving regrets from their physical life. I get it. It’s supposed to be weird and it is. Then, about half way in, I turned to my wife, who enjoyed the book, and said, “I have no clue what is happening in this book. It’s just a bunch of non-sequiturs.”

Of course, it makes me feel like a rube when I can’t digest the year’s great literary masterpiece. But seriously – I read a lot. I’m relatively well-read. It’s not ON ME to make this story understandable – or interesting.

Is it time for everyone to admit that after Saunders’ friends in the media raved about his achievement, the rest of you were afraid to admit that the book has some major flaws?

Aside from the format that leaves the reader in the dark as to who is speaking, and the fact that much of the dialogue is intentionally insane rantings meant only to flavor the narrative, the themes attributed to this book by reviewers (racism, death, the end of slavery) are tangential at best. I honestly didn’t really catch the race themes until about two-thirds into the book and read a review that pointed this out. But honestly, that’s on me, because at that point I was done caring.

I’m not saying this book is total garbage. After all, the people who convene to award the Man Booker Prize are superior minds when it comes to literature than I. George Saunders is a well respected writer who needs no introduction. (Does he? I don’t know.) His defenders can read my critique and point out my poor proof reading of this review, and then cast is aside as the mere whining of an unknown novelist. Although, his book gets 3.4 stars from the illiterate masses of Amazon who gave my book 4.1 stars. I mean, a full half-star, George. Does it hurt, George? Of course it doesn’t. I’d trade a half-star for a book deal.

Honestly, the hardest thing about coming out negatively about this book is that it clearly touched so many people. I know they aren’t all pretending. Obviously there is something wrong with me. For god’s sake, my favorite musician, Jason Isbell is a Saunders fan. He gets it. I’m not here to convince you that the book is bad. But it isn’t Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it isn’t The Grapes of Wrath or The Color Purple. It’s weird, and different, and people like that. Maybe it was almost great. I wish someone had said, “Yes, George, this can win a prize, and sell a million copies. But go back and push this thing to the top of the mountain, and tie the goddamned thing together.” And I don’t mean dumb it down for washed up oil salesmen-turned-writers like me. I just think it needs work. A lot of work. And maybe it could have been great.

Thursday Central’ is the online home of a group of writers in St. Pete, Florida. You’ll find anything here from poetry, to short stories, humor, and links to our work out in the world. We meet at 10am every Thursday, typically in a coffee shop somewhere on Central Avenue. The group is open to all, completely informal. We write, we socialize, we drink caffeine, and we share our latest triumphs and setbacks. To find out where we’re meeting next week, contact



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