LINCOLN IN THE BARDO
By George Saunders
Bloomsbury Publishing/Paperback/ 355 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars
Death is probably confusing at first. Not that we would know, of course. But it is with the muddled senses with which one presumably enters the afterlife that the reader tumbles into the bardo of George Saunders' first novel.
Saunders' highly experimental undertaking is an acquired taste, a book that challenges our notions of what a novel should be.
We might try to define it as historical fiction, or a ghost story, as a choral play or a scrapbook of quotes - but what it achieves is far more than the sum of its very many parts.
The novel takes place on a single night after the funeral and entombing of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, the son of the United States president Abraham Lincoln. The boy likely died of typhoid fever.
Willie, like the other inhabitants of the graveyard, now exists in the bardo, a liminal state in between death and whatever lies beyond.
There is much inventive body horror as the ghosts manifest in shifting, grotesque forms, their mutations emblematic of what haunts them from their previous lives.
Roger Bevins III, who committed suicide after his affections were rejected by another man, manifests as an "overgrown fleshly bouquet" of multiple eyes, noses and hands, all slashed at the wrists. All four limbs of former slave Mrs Francis Hodge appear worn to nubs, leaving bloody trails wherever she goes.
The ghosts are in denial about their state, believing themselves to be merely ill and occupying "sick-boxes" which are in fact their coffins and this prevents them from moving on from this world.
When President Lincoln enters the crypt late at night to cradle his son's corpse, the spectral masses regard this unprecedented transgression as a miracle.
The narration is shared by the voices of a staggering 166 characters, as well as fragments of historical essays and verbatim accounts, in a slipstream of cacophony.
From the raucous profanity of drunk tramps Eddie and Betsy Baron, to the voiceless slave girl Litzie who talks in strings of asterisks for most of the novel, Saunders renders his dizzying array of characters with virtuosic diversity, and a firm hand that rarely allows this controlled chaos to meander too far.
This strange, transcendent novel may put readers off with its structure, but its technical tricks are underpinned by great human emotion, as sweeping as the babel of a nation in crisis, and as private and profound as a father's grief.
If you liked this, read: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (Vintage, 1996, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a 1930 American Southern Gothic novel narrated by 15 characters, as the impoverished family of Addie Bundren struggle to honour her wish to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.