On paper, it sounds like something magnificent: master short-story writer George Saunders’s very first novel! An examination of a moment in the life of America’s greatest president!
As Penguin Random House says:
George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
And then there’s the audiobook: 166 characters! 166 voices!
I read and listened to Saunders’s “Tenth of December,” and loved both experiences. I was so looking forward to this. Then I started listening to “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
As you can tell by the excerpts above, the story is told with multiple voices. It is very Whitmanesque, to stick with the mid-nineteenth century; or, to go back in time, something like a Greek chorus of an ancient play (except they don’t all say the same things and are individual characters themselves); or, perhaps it could be considered Wachowskian, the creators of “Sense8,” for a more contemporary take on the bringing together of the multiplicity of voices. Many of those multiple voices are presented as excerpts, such as bits of texts from real or imagined contemporary accounts and historical analyses, and are thus, in a rather academic way, given credit lines for author and publication. In print, those moments of credit are set off by being aligned right and set in a smaller typeface than the excerpt. They are a physical embodiment of an aside. As a reader, I often sound out words in my head (aka subvocalization). With the printed version of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” I could just glance at those set aside credits and understand them without vocalizing them in my mind. The audio equivalent is an aside; there is no audio equivalent of a glance; that is, in audio everything has to be vocalized. So, already, in the audio there is a kind of tension that makes the listening experience less than the reading experience.
And then there are the passages of multiple voices—often the dead in the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln is buried—who argue among themselves and who don’t always get credit lines.
In his review of the print version of the novel, Ron Charles of the Washington Post says: “So, is this actually a novel or a script? At first, the conscientious reader struggles to consider these passages as though they comprised a tall stack of individual epigraphs. But quickly ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ teaches us how to read it. The quotations gathered from scores of different voices begin to cohere into a hypnotic conversation that moves with the mysterious undulations of a flock of birds.”
It is a wonderful metaphor for the voices, and in the audio version, of course, those voices get voiced and are often arguing with one another and cut each other off. But instead of being hypnotic, the voices can be distracting, as if the star power of some can both create and confuse the character. For example, having listened to most of David Sedaris’s autobiographical essays, I found it hard to think of his voice as a character’s voice instead of being him. The undulations of the voices also made it had for a sustained moment to allow for a character to cohere in my mind. Almost every time I felt like I was about to understand a character, a new voice would come on—sometimes a famous voice, sometimes not—and I’d have to do the work all over again of trying to make sense of who was who.
Reading the printed book, I could easily go back a page or two to regroup my thoughts before continuing. The audiobook, of course, allows for going back and forward, but it isn’t as precise so it isn’t as clarifying an experience. Instead, I found the audiobook too frustrating, so I gave up.
Were able to listen to “Lincoln in the Bardo?”
Here’s an excerpt: