This is one the most wonderful books I have read / heard / experienced in a long time - brilliant, weird, insightful, crass and confusing all at the same time I am still not sure what I think about this book except that I loved it.
I have been meaning to pick this book since November 2017 and I have the physical copy on my shelves since August 2019. I borrowed the audiobook around 16 times before actually reading this. All in all, to say that this was a book I was apprehensive about would be an understatement. I was expecting this mediation on loss and grief which would only help making me depressed too - what I got was something that did talk about grief but also about grace, moving on and life’s absolute absurdity and our delusions - both internal and external.
The first thing that struck me was how funny this was - some parts are comedic and entertaining (especially the main three narrators in the Bardo) but even the constant historical excerpts about the Lincolns made me grin. In the space of a page, the President was accused of being a bad father, a good father, indifferent and grief stricken. We never got to hear from him directly - there was always a distance between us and the reader - either through the ghosts or the “historical” texts. That struck me as I felt that the author was pointing out the futility of ever knowing someone - especially in terms of knowing someone’s history and the fallacy of making conclusions of intent. (Not all the excerpts are from the real books which makes one question what is actually ‘read’ and ‘false’. It kept me on my toes and sent me down a google rabbit hole periodically - so cool).
The audiobook was fantastic - fully narrated which added an immediacy to some of the longer passages. I did also follow along the narration with a book which was the right mix for me. This novel works more like a play with the character’s direct dialogue but the ability to go back and re-read the print quickly or pause and focus on the ridiculous titles of the “historical” texts was interesting.
There are passages which the spelling is archaic or not correct (e.g:
“Begins, I’ll piss a line of toxic in yr wretched twin wristcuts Groping you by ye clubsick, Vollman, I’ll slag you into the black fence.” )
which reflects a state of mind of the ghost which the audio narrator doesn’t fully get across. However, the audio reflect class differences through accent and cadence so clearly that I honestly think this book should both be read and listened to simultaneously.
You can also see Mr Saunders’ short story background play out here. A lot of the ghosts' dialogue worked like little vignettes, some were poignantly funny and some were sad. And some fluctuated back and forth.
In the end, I loved the surrealness of the book - I was reminded of Lost Gods which was also set in purgatory. And despite the fact that the latter book had more violence and literal gods / monsters, this was more atmospheric and weird. This book didn’t really explain what was happening but just asked you as a reader to gamely follow along.
I loved this book - I had 9 pages of thoughts on this! Definitely worth getting the audiobook and giving this a try. I agree with the Guardian which called this book “a performance of great formal daring. It perhaps won’t be to everyone’s taste, but minor missteps aside it stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction .
Just don't wait for 3 year before picking this up.