Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, 341 pages

Just after his 11-year-old son Willie died, Abraham Lincoln spent a night visiting the cemetery where the boy was buried. Whether or not this really happened is unclear, but in Lincoln in the Bardo, it did, and the president's visit stirred excitement among the spirits still hanging around the cemetery. Narrated by the many "residents" of the cemetery, Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of that one night, and delves into the former lives of the spirits, including the entirely fictional printer Hans Vollman, closeted gay man Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas, whose voices account for the bulk of the narration.

I focus on the narration here because I listened to the audiobook, which is a full-cast recording featuring an astonishing 166 separate narrators. With so many voices, it's hard to keep track of who is who, but a few voices stand out. Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and George Saunders voice Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend, respectively, and are perfectly cast in those roles. Also perfect? Megan Mullaly and Bill Hader as a foul-mouthed low-class (and hilarious) couple that were buried just outside the official cemetery in the mass grave reserved for slaves. Keegan-Michael Key and Don Cheadle excellently bring two of those slaves to life (or afterlife?), with ruminations on slavery and the Civil War, which was just a year old at the time this book was set.

Listening to this audiobook was quite the experience, and I'd recommend it, though perhaps not without a look through the physical book first, which would likely have helped abate the disorienting feeling of so many voices taking on the book's structure.

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