This first novel by George Saunders is one that a lot of people in my book group were raving about. I heard the audiobook in particular was very well done, with a large cast of exceptional actors, but that the audiobook could also be kind of confusing because of the way the book is written and because there are so many characters.
I saw a review of the book that said it’s written more like a script than a novel. I think that’s accurate and I also think that’s why it makes such a great audiobook. Instead of putting the character’s name at the beginning of each line, Saunders put the full name of each character at the ends of each of their passages. The audiobook gave each character’s name the first time we heard them, but after that, they didn’t bother. It was easy enough to discern which character was narrating based on the voice we were hearing, and that made it a lot easier (and more entertaining) to listen to.
The actors narrating this book are all phenomenal. They include Saunders himself, Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Susan Sarandon, and Don Cheadle, just to name a few.
The book is about the death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. It’s told largely from the perspective of the ghosts who have spent years haunting the cemetery where they are buried, but Saunders also includes historical accounts from the White House of how Willie got sick and died and the effects of the Lincoln’s family’s grief. Each passage is cited and the audiobook’s narrator reads every citation. It was kind of annoying, but it was also kind of annoying when trying to read the book, so I guess that part evens out between the two.
I didn’t bother to check, but someone said some of the historical citations Saunders used were real historical accounts and others were made up, so I guess that’s pretty cool.
Anyway, when we’re not getting historical accounts of what was going on in the White House at the time, we’re mostly listening to the ghosts that are haunting the cemetery. I never understood why people were afraid of cemeteries because why would ghosts hang out there? Wouldn’t they be more likely to haunt the places that were important to them when they were alive? Or the place they died, rather than the place where they’re buried?
But in Saunders’s depiction of the “bardo” (an intermediate state between life and afterlife) the ghosts refuse to admit they’re dead. They all know on some level why they’re really there, but they’re all in serious denial and actually pride themselves on their ability to stick around rather than “succumb” to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” that occurs when souls move on.
Instead of facing facts, these ghosts refer to their coffins as their “sick boxes” and mausoleums as “sick houses,” with the idea being that they will supposedly get better and finish their unfinished business.
But these ghosts are regularly haunted by visions of what’s keeping them there. Hans Vollman sees his wife, Roger Bevins III sees the lover who rejected him, and young Willie sees his mother. These apparitions try to seduce these ghosts into moving on, and when they succeed, there is the “familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.”
Vollman, Bevins, and the rest pride themselves on their ability to resist the “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” and yet they take it upon themselves to help Willie give in. They note that the young ones are not meant to stick around, listing a succession of young children and infants who hung around for only a matter of minutes before giving in to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” If Willie does not move on, he will lose his form and be bound by vine-like tendrils that will keep him trapped against his sick house forever and then he’ll never be able to move on. I do find it interesting that, despite their pride in resisting the urge to move on, and telling the boy his own resistance was “admirable,” they encourage him not to stay.
Abe Lincoln pays a visit to his boy’s corpse and Vollman gets the idea that maybe he and Bevins can enlist Abe’s help to get Willie to move on. Vollman and Bevins are able to enter Abe’s body and see what he’s thinking. He’s trying to rationalize his way out of grief by telling himself that his boy is in a better place, and so Abe should not mourn him or continue visiting a pile of meat that no longer has any connection to his son. Vollman thinks that, if he can get Willie to enter his father’s body and see what he’s thinking – what he wants for Willie – then Willie might be encouraged to move on.
Whether or not this is actually possible is a matter of debate and I don’t think the events of the book settle that debate. Vollman says they influenced a couple once before, but Bevins is unsure whether they had anything to do with it or merely happened to be nearby when the couple copulated and decided to renew their engagement.
After entering Lincoln and thinking hard about Willie’s body, Abe does get up and return, but it’s still not clear whether it’s a result of Bevins’s and Vollman’s efforts or merely a coincidence.
In any case, Willie does end up entering his father’s body and leaving with the realization that he’s dead. That all his new friends are dead. He shouts this to all the spirits gathered around him, and as he does, people start disappearing one by one as they allow the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” to take them. Eventually, even Vollman and Bevins give in, although there are some stubborn spirits who still remain behind at the end of the book.
What did you guys read/listen to this week? Anything else that made a fantastic audiobook?