“On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.”
The Bardo of the title is a Buddhist idea of a transitional state between life and death, a purgatory. I mention it because no one else bothers.
There is a line in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, also listed for the Booker of Bookers, written 40 years earlier, which sort of captures the essence of George Sanders task in this inflated tome:
“I shall use many voices, in this history…”
She goes on to explain a few pages later:
“In my head Jasper is fragmented: there are many Jaspers, disordered without chronology. As there are many Gordons. Many Claudias.”
I wonder if Sanders read those lines as inspiration? In essence these are the voices at the birth of a nation – 160 voices all told, I am told, sacrilegious, bawdy, defamatory, vernacular. Fine “fragmented” voices they are too crackling along like Dickens moving along without the worry of a plot or narrative or description or much of what we usually associate with the elements of story telling.
We have two books lashed on top of each other. Book one is the cleverly conceived saga of the president angsting over his son dying of typhoid while sending 10s or should that be 100s of thousands to their deaths in the civil war, told in snatches from newspapers, memoires, journals, some real, some imagined. Here there is a smart contrast between the descriptions of the society ball and later characters. There are even four pages of quotes as to what Lincoln himself looked like.
The second book is a dreamed up purgatory – the bardo of the title – where dead people or nearly dead people turn up for a chat under the auspices of the the dubious Vollman, Bevins and the reverend Everley Thomas.
The redeeming part of the first book is to catch the idiom of the time and sounds of the era, of a key moment in revolutionary history, we are there with them, but that is undone by the bogus hokus pokus of the underworld chitter chatter of the second book which laces through it.
There are any number – so many as to be clichés really – of literary references to grab on to – the Greek chorus of the dead, the second coming, Dante’s Inferno revised, Hamlet’s gravediggers etc. The undertones are perhaps supposed to suggest freshness and frankness but re-occurring visions of rape and latent homosexuality don’t read that way to me. It is macabre, telling dirty stories about the dead and when it is clever it is often sly, so when we are told that Abe has some difficulty making love to his new wife on their wedding night, it is because, we later appreciate, how moved and important their son might become to them. Subtelties like that are few and far between.
In fact this is not so much a novel as a prose poem that might seek to inhabit the same territory as T.S. Elliott, Ted Hughes or even more recently Max Porter’s Crow or Aimeer McBride. It is not an easy read across 340 pages, although to make things easier the publisher Bloomsbury has inserted plenty of white space so you might be reading verse. Lively’s book by contrast in my edition is 204 pages but is probably longer but she does not use much punctuation. Full stops and capital letters are about it. She also uses words like “shards” correctly where Sanders bends it to another purpose.
Bloombsury gives us a little pompous aside at the back of the book about how the type is in fact Fournier designed originally by one Pierre-Simon Fournier who lived from 1712 to 1768, so a century before the action here. I am all for publishers explaining the types they use and why but this just reads like so much aggrandizement.
It is not so much as what to make of the book – which is sort of interesting, clever, a diversion if you like this kind of thing, fragments of good writing, snatches really, odd spots of clarity, but plotless, guileless, devoid of a narrative engine, un-edited, overblown and corpulent – rather what to make it of it winning the Booker prize let alone being nominated for the Booker of Bookers. Elliott, Hughes, even Dylan Thomas brought people to the book, to reading, to enjoyment of reading, to the revelations of literature, to great visions of human consciousness and understanding, to visions of intelligence. This will put people off reading altogether. It aspires to be the Great American Novel but it is the Great American Un-Novel. This Booker emperor has, for me, no clothes on.