If you turn over George Saunders’ first full-length novel, you’ll be bombarded by so many quotes on the back cover from writing titans that it might lead you to believe that he’s the literary equivalent of the second coming of Christ. Jonathan Franzen says we’re lucky to have him, Zadie Smith asserts that we’ll read him “long after these times have passed”, Thomas Pynchon, Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore and more besides all sing his praises.
And the wonderful thing is, they ain’t wrong. Saunders is a singular voice, a writer whose celebrated short stories have combined Pythonesque whimsy, incomprehensible corporate/new age jargon, deep existential ennui and a strong ethical conscience to create a style that is instantly recognisable and wonderfully original. His works are uniquely his own, as funny as they are often heart-breaking – you will laugh, you will cry – and his debut novel is thankfully no different.
A bizarre story – Abraham Lincoln’s deceased eleven-year-old son Willie tries to navigate a transitional stage of the afterlife known as the Bardo over one night of ghostly weirdness – is complemented by an equally bizarre form; when Saunders isn’t leading the plot through playscript-like dialogues narrated from within the Bardo he’s employing an even more remarkable narrative convention, that of telling the tale of the surviving Abraham Lincoln by amalgamating passages from (fictional) history books. This creates a procession of voices mostly many-times removed from the events they clamour to describe. It sounds odd, is odd, but is as wrong-footing and unexpectedly affecting as anything he has written.
It’s not often you read a book that feels as deliciously, daringly new as this. And the fact that, like Saunders’ short stories, it somehow feels casual, unpretentious and effortless just shows the extent of this fascinating author’s talent.