Who knew that experimental literary fiction could give you belly laughs? Well, Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the funniest and most raucous books I have ever read, of any genre. I didn’t expect it to be funny. It is also many other things as well – but I think that its humour was the greatest surprise for me, especially given that the principle focus of the novel, outwardly at least, is death. Yet on reflection I don’t think that I should have been so surprised because this book does not provide a type of artistic experimentation that feels academic and ultimately alienating; instead it offers a carnivalesque celebration in the finest traditions of the novel, which has it its heart Bhaktinian dialogism and heteroglossia.
Do you see what I did there? I explained how a novel that you might think would be artistically elitist actually turns out not to be using academically elitist language. That deserves a bit more explanation.
Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian theorist who wrote extensively about the novel using slightly obscure terminology. But beyond the terminology, he offers a compelling analysis. Let’s go back to what the word ‘novel’ means – new and original. Bhaktin’s view of true novels is that they always seeking to be new and original by being an ‘anti-form’ that undermines the idea of single, authoritative truth in texts. He argues that the thing that makes novels distinct is the way that they incorporate a range of different speech types – or ‘discourses’ – that compete against one another within the text in a way that never fully resolves itself. This is something that Bhaktin called ‘dialogics’. David Lodge explained it by saying that ‘As soon as you allow a variety of discourses into a textual space…you establish a resistance… to the dominance of any one discourse.’ So rather than a unified, homogenous form of language, the novel presents a heteroglossic variety of language types.
And this is why Lincoln in the Bardo is a classic novel in this Bahktinian sense. When I began reading Lincoln in the Bardo I found the way the words are laid out on the page confusing and disruptive as I was trying to read it. If you have not read it then let me explain. The book is structured in the form of a series of quotes (without quotation marks) with their attribution underneath. Some of them are only a line long. Other last for a couple of pages. For instance:
Presently we became aware, by way of certain familiar signs, that trouble was brewing.
roger bevins iii
It happened as it always happens
the reverend everly thomas
A hush fell across the premises.
roger bevins iii
At first, this felt like it disrupted the flow of the narrative until, after a little while, the device fades into the background and the different voices gel together to create a remarkable style of storytelling that completely eschews the idea of an individual narrator. It is a novel told completely in dialogue. I don’t think that this is a ‘difficult’ book – I found it very accessible and easy to read once I’d got past my initial unfamiliarity with the way it is laid out on the page.
The story itself is also remarkable: the reader inhabits the ‘bardo’ of the title – a transitional state in Tibetan buddhism between life and rebirth – and is introduced to a wide cast of the living dead who swirl through the story in a phantasmagoric whirlwind. Many of these spirits want to delay their journey to the next life because they feel that they have unfinished business in the lives that they are leaving. These spirits include Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, whose untimely death is the principal focus of the novel – but it is Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and The Reverend Everly Thomas who are the main narrators of the story. Other characters include the ‘disreputable Barons’, a sweary couple who provide plenty of humour:
Get up, get up.
No f—ing stopping. No f—ing thinking.
I ain’t. I ain’t f—ing thinking.
I just don’t feel good.
Look at me, look at me.
Remember that tine we lived in that f—ing beautiful field? With the kids? That, uh, spacious meadow?
In that tent? Remember that? After f—ing Donovan evicted us from the s—hole by the river? Those were the days, hah?
That was no f—ing spacious meadow! You piece of s—! That was where all the f—ing scum of the earth came to s— and drop their G—ed garbage!
But what a view, eh? Not many kids get that view. We could look out our tent-flap, and right there: the f—ing White House.
But first you had to walk around the G—n trash heap. While watching out for those big f—ing rats. And that gang of Hessian gropers that f—ing lived in there.
I have never read anything like it, and its mixture of pathos and bawdy humour was a complete joy – while its frank meditation on death and the things the characters wish they had done before they died made me think a lot about my own life and the things that I don’t want to be left undone.
I think it is a wonderful book and I recommend it to all of you.