Reading Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, brought to mind an elective general anaesthetic, of which I’ve had several. Your approach and your mindset at the time of reading it, may, however, determine whether this feels like receiving, or administering the mind and body-disabling drugs. For me, it felt like going through the whole procedure again, from rolling into the anaesthetic room to the waking up in the recovery area with somebody of smugly superior knowledge telling you why what you’ve just put yourself through was essentially a good thing.
I’d read all over the place that it was a challenging read. It’s not the subject matter I found difficult – in fact it was part of the reason I liked the sound of it. Simply put, it’s about Abe Lincoln mourning the death of his son, who is trapped in ‘the Bardo’ – the state between death and rebirth. Lincoln visits his son’s crypt and is observed by a group of spirits who provide much of the commentary of the novel.
It’s written in an exciting, innovative new format, according to some critics, with the name of the person/spirit who just spoke underneath the section of dialogue.
There is so much of it that it becomes very difficult, or annoying, or boring to follow it. As an anonymous critic also said to me:
By about half way, I couldn’t be bothered to read the name of who just spoke so I just read straight through.
I’m sure some revelled in the novelty of what is simply a different way of representing speech.
Some who revelled in the novelty
You get the picture. All I thought was that it showed why, over hundreds of years of writing, a few similar ways of presenting speech or dialogue by and large have been maintained and trusted. They work.
I may of course be showing my limitations as a reader (and tendency to drink too-strong wine while I read chapters of tricky books and therefore sometimes lose the plot, literally. Although in hindsight I think I was drinking whilst reading this in an effort to make it more interesting.) For too much of the book I was wondering what relevance the commentary/dialogue had to the story, how was it moving the narrative forward? By about page 75 I seem to recall I was basically willing it to end.
What’s this got to do with anaesthetics?
An anaesthetist will approach the task with seriousness, but in a calm, relaxed manner. This is probably the best way to think about Lincoln. They’ll be focussed throughout. It will be routine for them, require their attention, with little room for error (and no wine). There are parts of the process when anaesthetists can be less attentive, reliant on their automated machines to highlight any anomalies, but will be alert the whole time; interested. This is needed throughout this book. It’s different, needs alertness and attention as well as your automated instincts for good, intricate writing.
If you’re a patient, however, it’s a different story. Arriving at hospital for planned surgery is an exciting prospect. You’re going to be ‘mended’. You generally think about it for a while, weighing up the evidence, people’s opinions, pros and cons. I’d done some of this before deciding to read this Man Booker Prize winning, “innovative” novel which is, according to The Guardian, “head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction”. As I started, I was still excited. It started confidently, like the assuring conversation between patient, surgeon and anaesthetist.
Unfortunately, after the initial excitement and intrigue, for large parts of the book, (possibly those read with the Viognier), I got lost. Bored. In parts, with the ghosts of the Bardo chattering away, it was like I was unconsciously floating through time with only the skill and consciousness of those (anaesthetists) who had clearly enjoyed and recommended the book being enough to keep me alive and reading it. They must be on to something, right? There must be something I’m missing? I shouldn’t be thinking that reading this book is a complete waste of some of the precious 44 million minutes I have on this earth, before I myself end up in the Bardo! In fact, the only difference I could ascertain between reading this and having a general anaesthetic is that at least at the end of an anaesthetic your life (hopefully) has been improved in some measurable way. This novel added little to my existence. And I write that as someone who truly loves great fiction and new innovative ways of treating subject matters, including the between-life-and-afterlife.
Great literature should do many things. It should make us challenge assumptions, look at the world differently. Teach us, help us think about things from different perspectives. Appreciate skill and talent, yes, but also have a purpose. And for me, I want to enjoy a book as well, there has to be some level of entertainment, especially as life gets more serious as you get older. Most anaesthetists enjoy the whole event. If you enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo then I congratulate your skill and admire your ability to focus precisely on that which appears to be so imprecise.
The book scores 3.4 stars out of 5 on Amazon’s reviews with 169 reviewers. This however, is made up of mostly 5, or 1 star ratings. I wouldn’t recommend this book based purely on my opinion. But if you do tackle it, approach it like you’re giving someone an anaesthetic, and you might enjoy it.