As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, ghosts and Abraham Lincoln lead me down a winding path.
Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo. Random. Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780812995343. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780812995350. F
Upon his death in 1862, the body of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, is taken to a cemetery in Washington, DC, where he lingers in bardo, a Tibetan term describing the state between death and rebirth. Through one astounding night, while his father grieves his loss, all around him ghosts watch, fuss, and plot. In his first novel, Saunders creates a kind of polyphonic spree, with more than 100 different voices telling a tale of pain, loss, and anger but also love and communion. Deceased spirits with narratives of their own, living characters witnessing the tragedy, and historical accounts of Willie’s death and the president’s reaction are all interwoven to create prisms through which the action is seen. This combination makes for a powerful work that manages to shine, perhaps even thrive, above its innovations in storytelling. Despite the clamor, Saunders focuses on just a few central figures—wonderfully characterized apparitions—which enables readers to cling to their tales and ride out the events of the evening. In the end, what emerges is a fantastical ghost story, a caper, a meditation on living and dying, and a brief yet somber prose poem about the weight of the Civil War and its holy aims.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Oxford Univ. 2008. 240p. ISBN 9780199540723. $8.95; ebk. ISBN 9781775415565.
Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology. Penguin. 2008 320p. ISBN 9780143105152. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781440635298.
Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. Harper Perennial. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9780062280817. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062232632.
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A litany of critics have mentioned the debt Saunders owes to these three classics, and the connections are easy to see. Despite their differences in form—short stories, poetry, and a play—all tell of life in a small town as represented through its various residents. As is true with Lincoln in the Bardo, the great pleasure and meaning of these pieces are derived from the many voices shaping the narratives. In Spoon River Anthology, 244 deceased inhabitants of the fictional town Spoon River tell their tales through free verse poetry. In Winesburg, Ohio, 22 stories investigate the crisis of self and illuminate the path of one young man. Our Town, which like Saunders’s work exhibits flair and innovation, unfolds through not only the speakers on stage but those in the “audience” as well, ending at a graveyard where the dead speak. As a literary bridge from the early to mid-20th century to the late teens of the current era, all three titles offer intriguing echoes for Saunders’s fans.
Murakami, Haruki. The Strange Library. Knopf. 2014. ISBN 9780385354301. 96p. tr. from Japanese by Ted Goossen illus. by Chipp Kidd. ISBN 9780385354301. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780385354318. F
Even though it’s not sequential art, there is something about Lincoln in the Bardo that feels just a bit like a graphic novel. The intercutting of all the voices combined with short passages of text, or utterances, produces a great deal of white space on the page. The laciness of that effect gives air to the novel, moving readers through at a fast clip that is sometimes surprising. That same feeling is present in Murakami’s story, which is deftly designed by Kidd. The disquieting tale is set in a nightmarish library where an unnamed boy is imprisoned and tries to escape. His companions are even more peculiar than Saunders’s ghosts, including a mysterious girl who is mute and a sheepman. The tale blends multiple kinds of storytelling, and a sinister threat hovers on every page. For readers who enjoy literary experimentation and want more, this brief work is a surreal feast, powered by its typeface, layout, oddly compelling plot, and Kidd’s associative images interspersed throughout.
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2015. 784p. ISBN 9780316055444. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780316248679. F
Rich texture, generous characterizations, and deeply heartfelt and accessible innovation are what make Saunders’s novel so fascinating. The perfect read-alike would be something akin to a plot by Charles Dickens crossed with Neil Gaiman as written by David Mitchell. In lieu of that precise novel, suggest this earlier offering from Pulitzer Prize winner Tartt. Where Saunders is brief, Tartt is baroque and expansive. Where his writing seems to float on the page, hers covers it like velvet. So why link the two? Because both are works of pathos and humor, smart and smartly conceived. There are surface connections as well—both grief and a boy faced with loss inhabit the core of the narratives, dramatizing a necessary education and arriving at a bizarrely familiar philosophical point.
Dante. The Inferno. Anchor. 2002. 736p. tr. from Italian by Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander. notes. ISBN 9780385496988. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780345803108. POETRY
There are a number of famous artworks depicting the lives of the dead, including Dante’s epic poem, which follows two poets, Dante and Virgil, through hell. Lost and unmoored, the character Dante enters the gates of the underworld with his poet guide, traversing the nine circles of the damned during the period from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday. As in Lincoln in the Bardo, those suffering are eager to tell their tales, such as the historical figure Francesca da Rimini, who is sentenced to the second circle for her lustful ways, forever buffeted by horrible storms (as the passions of lust are revealed to be). While others are too caught up in their torment to converse, Virgil and Dante speak to each other about their own sins and lives. The grisly tour continues past flatterers, sorcerers, hypocrites, thieves, and more, each to endure horrid punishments, detailed and observed. Notable poets and scholars have translated Inferno from its 14th-century Italian into English. This edition by scholars Robert and Jean Hollander has received critical praise both for its translation and notes. Also consider versions by John Ciardi and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. S. & S. 1996. 720p. ISBN 9780684825359. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781439126288. BIOG
Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) is a central figure in Saunders’s novel, and his actions and outlook in that story will certainly generate interest. The somber reflections of the president at the end in particular might inspire readers to learn more, and those who wish to explore a biography have plenty of choices (although few detail son Willie’s death with focused attention). Donald’s account is often listed as definitive, offering an accessible, full-rounded portrait of the man, the politician, and his times. Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln and Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None are also highly regarded. Historical fiction readers might want to consider Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln as well as Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, which features the real-life figure of the woman who sat with Willie as he lay dying.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 7 CDs. Random Audio. 2005. ISBN 9780739325353. $19.95. LIT
Lincoln in the Bardo is a polyphonic novel, using the voices of many characters in what amounts to a collaborative chorale performance (as Saunders has said he wants readers to think of his novel). A master example of this kind of literature is Faulkner’s tale of the Compson family, a Southern dynasty disintegrating over decades. The novel is divided into sections, each told from a different perspective, allowing Faulkner to shift styles dramatically and make jumps in time. This approach can be disorienting, especially in the first section, as it requires attention and care in reading. Here, Grover Gardner narrates in faultless style, wonderfully conveying the different viewpoints, convincingly portraying the iconic protagonists, and articulating the genius of Faulkner’s stylistic power.
Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. 7 CDs. Harper Audio. 2014. ISBN 9780062364463. $27.99. F
There is sufficient resonance between Willie—the lost deceased boy in the Washington, DC, graveyard of Saunders’s story—and Bod, the lost living boy in Gaiman’s tale, to make readers who know both books connect them, regardless of their being aimed at different age groups and audiences. Beyond their spectral characters who offer readers orientation and instruction, they share several elements: a metaphysical threat, anguish and sparkle, and involving storytelling. Saunders’s audio version is getting attention for its possibly record-setting number of performers (more than 100). While Gaiman narrated this first edition of the audiobook by himself, it has since been rereleased in a multicast recording featuring wonderful performances by Derek Jacobi, Robert Madge, Clare Corbett, Miriam Margolyes, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Emilia Fox, and many more (including Gaiman). This charming and exhilarating listen serves as a quirky call-and-response to Saunders.