• March 29, 2018

    Zombie Round

  • Min Jin Lee

    Z2Lincoln in the Bardo

    George Saunders

  • Judged by

    Joseph Fink

Lincoln in the Bardo

Let’s talk for a moment about “importance.” It is hard sometimes as a reader of new literature to separate out my own opinions from the perceived importance of a book. The awards nominated for and won, the highly publicized large advance received by a first-time author, the general agreement that liking and touting the book of the moment constitutes in itself an act of social good. But all art finally has to be experienced in the body, and sometimes even the most important work of art just doesn’t spark anything for me, while some other work that has no pedigree at all might end up sticking with me for the rest of my life (ask me some time about my deep love for the movies Drag Me to Hell and Trick ’r Treat).

Joseph Fink is the creator of Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. He co-wrote, with Jeffrey Cranor, the novels Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours! He is also the author of the upcoming Alice Isn’t Dead novel. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I read an ad for Lincoln in the Bardo on one of my podcasts.”

I say this because these books both, in their own ways, strike me as Important Books, and that definitely was in my mind when making this decision.

Pachinko starts us off with one hell of a first sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.”

Both the fact and the sentiment of this sentence rang incredibly true for me as a Jewish person, as I’m sure it does for any number of groups that history has failed. It also serves as a powerful thesis statement not just for this novel, but also the other novel under consideration today, and probably for the concept of history itself.

Pachinko is expansive, carrying us through some 90 years and several generations. A book of this length gains dramatic weight merely from how much it covers. For better or worse, a 500-page book demands to be taken more seriously than a 150-page book. And this is an undeniably serious book, one that tells a story which passes through almost every issue of vital present importance, from Korean history to immigration, race, the treatment of women, gay rights, and even the practices of large multinational banks.

But I found that the individual stories within the massive sweep of generations often didn’t capture me as much as I’d like. There are real technical flaws in the writing, mostly related to pacing. The first half stretches beats out into several chapters, sometimes much longer than I thought the moments warranted, while the second half plows through the characters’ lives and then dispatches them with such abruptness that the effect is more comedy than drama. It is difficult to escape the feeling that the book was written like a handwritten sign, where the letters start out huge and then get progressively smaller and more crowded as the writer realizes they have misunderstood how much room they have left to finish.

That said, it is no small thing to juggle so many decades and so many characters while still keeping each situation understandable, and each emotional moment honest and relatable. This is a book that cares deeply about the characters who live in it. It teaches without being didactic. It understands without necessarily forgiving.

Like Pachinko, Lincoln in the Bardo could reasonably be filed under the heading of historical fiction, but the novel’s interest is not history. Lincoln is a ghost story, and ghost stories are inherently inward-looking. The idea of ghosts is itself an act of human narcissism. After all, why should humans get to putter about after death while everything else stays dead? Where are the ghosts of possums, or the specters of house plants past? George Saunders leans into that problem by sidelining the grand mystery of death, and instead centering his afterlife around all the tiresome minutia and squabbling of the humans who exist within it.

The form of the novel is striking, a good quarter of it devoted to collages of historical firsthand sources. I am not enough of a student of literature to say whether this structure is as strikingly new as it seemed to me, but it certainly isn’t something I’ve seen a novel do before. That said, I was disappointed to find, upon Googling, that the apparent firsthand sources are a mixture of actual historical quotes and fictional quotes conjured by the author. While I appreciate the way that this pokes at the idea of historical authenticity (history has failed us after all, but, again, no matter), to me at least it undercuts the audacity of the format, using the fictional quotes as a crutch to shape a narrative that might not have existed merely by using the real quotes.

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The novel is baggy and strange and tries to tackle subjects that it just isn’t up to, most notably slavery. The subject is addressed, but the novel is too busy being clever to stop and give the total horror of these atrocities their due. But, on a sheer writing level, Saunders tosses out memorable images at a staggering rate, such as this spirit describing the experience of his own funeral:

My wife and congregation were saying their final goodbyes, their weeping driving small green daggers into me: literal daggers. With each sob, a dagger left the griever and found its way into me, most painfully.

Or this teenage spirit, cursed to forever take a series of increasingly hideous forms:

… she had gone beyond the fallen bridge, the vulture, the large dog, the terrible hag gorging on black cake, the stand of flood-ravaged corn, the umbrella ripped open by a wind we could not feel … And was manifesting as an ancient convent, containing fifteen bitter quarreling nuns, about to burn to the ground.

What I appreciate most about this book is how deeply weird it’s willing to go. Not just quaint, but truly off-putting. How many books taken seriously by the literary establishment feature a main character who is a floating bouquet of eyes, ears, and hands, or imagines divine judgement to include a lot of puking angels? OK, probably all of that’s somewhere in one of Pynchon’s books, but still.

When judged on importance, this matchup is a wash. One book addresses immigration with great empathy and remarkable clarity given the size of its cast, and it does so by focusing on a subject I imagine many readers knew little about (the plight of Korean immigrants in Japan). Meanwhile, the other book marks an ambitious move forward by one of America’s most famous literary writers, and makes a strong argument that we are not done finding startling new ways to structure and write novels.

But of course I’m not here to judge importance. I’m here to say which book I think is better, and there the answer is unequivocal. One book sparked with me, and the other just didn’t. Lincoln, I’ll see you in the final round.

TODAY’S WINNER: Lincoln in the Bardo

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: There are two Batman onomatopoeia balloons over my head right now: One that says Thwack! and one that says Oof!

Say something while I get my breath back.


John Warner: What I’m about to say sounds strange, even to me, but somehow it feels like the Booker Prize-winning novel winning this matchup still feels like something of an upset.

It’s silly to think of this contest in terms of “momentum,” given that every single match is a reset—new judge, new predilections, new idiosyncrasies—but just about every year there’s a book that just seems to be on fire, steamrolling through the tourney, taking down significant competition to the point it looks unbeatable.

Kevin: OK, I’m good. Honestly, I adore George Saunders so I’m not at all saddened to see Lincoln in the Bardo in the Rooster final. I have just lost a loved one, though, so I’m a little tender. Pachinko, I will wear your fair likeness in a locket for the rest of my days.

It is funny. Bardo was certainly a pre-Tournament favorite, and then after the opening round I kind of forgot about it, to be honest. This shouldn’t be a surprise in the least, but somehow I didn’t see it coming until the last sentence of Judge Fink’s decision. Bardo really did take a strange route to the championship, where lots of people might have predicted it would end up when this all began.

John: Last year, The Underground Railroad did it as a favorite. Two years ago The Sellout stormed to the title as a bit of a sleeper, winning over The Turner House, which had plenty of Big Mo of its own through the tourney.

But thanks to the Zombie Round, a book that got meh-ed out of the draw in the opening round, comes back to life and will go to the championship. Pachinko got wrong-judge-wrong-timed. I really thought it was going to win it all. But Judge Fink just wanted more of what Lincoln in the Bardo had to offer. As a Zombie, Bardo obviously had a lot of fans, but I think there’s going to be some wailing and gnashing over this one among the commentariat.

Now Lincoln in the Bardo has a chance to be the third Booker/Rooster double winner following The Sellout in 2016 and Wolf Hall in 2010, but first it’s going to have to take down Fever Dream, in a rematch of the opening contest of the main draw. I’m almost positive that’s never happened.

Kevin: I believe this is the first rematch in the final since 2013, when The Orphan Master’s Son, having been dispatched in the quarterfinals by The Fault in Our Stars, came back to win 14-3 in the championship. Those were both huge books, though. The Fault in Our Stars was a publishing sensation that year, and The Orphan Master’s Son won all the awards. This time we have a novel in translation, one that had to play its way into the tourney via the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, walking untouched into the finals, where it will meet a pre-tourney favorite with a chance to avenge its shocking opening-round knockout.

John: Also, Fever Dream could be only the second champion coming out of a number-four seed, following The Sisters Brothers in 2012. I also think it would be the first work in translation to ever win the Rooster. Can the gut punch of a novel beat the number-one seed again? What sound does a rooster make in Argentina?

Kevin: “Quiquiriquí.” Oh, that question was rhetorical, wasn’t it.

I don’t know how to call this one. It’s going to be a test of impressions. Will Judge Fink’s peers on the bench embrace Bardo’s weirdness the way he did? Or will they be seduced by Fever Dream’s creepiness, the way three other biblio-barristers have so far? If it were my call, I would take Fever Dream. I enjoyed that book more. But I would happily award Saunders a Rooster for lifetime achievement any day. I’m excited for this one.

Meet you back here tomorrow, brother. This is going to be something.

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