Best Book Ever: Lincoln in the Bardo vs. Hannibal

Lincoln in the Bardo vs. Hannibal.

What goes on in the mind of a brilliant man? I knew this round would be hard -how could a mass media paperback classic compare to a cerebral history lesson -but as you’ll notice, these two novels share same Goodreads score down to the hundredth. Will a rumination on death win against serial killers study? Let’s find out!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

George Saunders became obsessed with Abraham Lincoln’s nightly visitations to his son Willie’s crypt after his premature passing. And hence a novel was born. Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of these night time visits imagining that Willie’s ghost, as well as others, haunt the cemetery grounds dealing with their unfinished business. While Willie is a child, slowly piecing things together in his innocence, the other adult ghosts have had more time to come to terms with their condition and be inoculated with apathy of existing as they are rather than dealing with their trauma. Slowly, and with Willie’s help, they to come to peace with their condition.

Even knowing that Lincoln in the Bardo is an experimental novel on the offset won’t necessarily help you come to terms with the difficult style of the novel. Saunders plays around first assembling a novel out of historical accounts. A piece from a newspaper combines with personal letters to tell the tale of what happened to Lincoln’s son. Throw in some unassigned monologues and some echoes of the Greek chorus once actual characters come into play, and you’re likely to throw this book across the room rather than piece it together. Give yourself time to get in stride, and assure yourself the puzzle is worth solving.

  • Goodreads Score: 3.76
  • Length: 3 – Fortunately, unlike many artistic and principled novels, Lincoln in the Bardo is at least not terribly weighty.
  • Readability: 2 -Once you’ve conquered some difficult reads like Chauncer or Faulkner or ee cummings , you think “Oh yes, I am so literariliy well endowed, I can read these experimental things.” Sure, if you apply diligence. Contrasting Hannibal which was a great beach read, this was a terrible one -but gosh wasn’t it wonderful once I got over that?
  • Language: 5 -Now that you’ve have my diatribe on how unreadable this summbich is I’m here to tell you -it’s perfect.
  • Characters/Plot: 4.25 -The bardo is a a Buddhist state of purgatory where the soul has left one body but is prevented from entering the next due to the unresolved issues in the most previous life. What a plot for such a popular 19th century President?

Overall Score: 18.01

Hannibal by Thomas Harris

Hannibal by Thomas Harris.

Seven years after Hannibal Lecter says hello to Clarice, her life has crumbled. Once hailed for her capture of the serial killer Buffalo Bill, Starling is now hunting a drug dealer. When the confrontation goes wrong, Clarice is removed from service while her tenure is evaluated. Meanwhile, Hannibal, now living a life of luxury in Florence, Italy, hears of her misfortune. When he writes her a letter offering condolences and comfort by way of psycho-therapeutic services, the game to find Hannibal is on.

Also after Dr. Lecter is the wealthy but twisted Mason Verger. When seeking therapy years before, Mason proved so despicable, Hannibal pushed him to shave off his face and feed it to his dogs. While you might think that guy is the villain with his laundry list of sins, including many against his very own sister, all the more infuriating is Paul Krendler, the misogynist sycophant coworker of Clarice. With so many hunters, only one can succeed -or maybe two if they’re the ones we like.

I read Hannibal when I was 14, primed with the knowledge that -of course- the serial killer must be evil. After finishing, the novel persuaded me that perhaps I should reconsider my world view for what a truly evil person is.

  • Goodreads Score: 3.76
  • Length: 4- Bought at a beachside used book store, Hannibal was there for a reason. It’s a pleasant popular paperback length.
  • Readability: 4- Hannibal is an easy read, progressing from scene to scene with the urgency of “What happens next!”with plenty of filler murders and exploits before the main event.
  • Language: 3 -While Harris is a master of suspense and dialogue, a master wordsmith he is not.
  • Characters/Plot: 3.63 -As I’ve mentioned, I came to redefine my notions of evil people after reading Hannibal. Never had I been exposed to such a blithely incompetent “Yes man.” who infuriatingly gets his way while the clever and noble falter. There’s a sense of the “real world” in Hannibal that The Silence of the Lambs didn’t have, and hence it’s spot on the list.

Overall Score: 18.38

The Verdict

Is this my first OVERRULED? I think it is. And I do so emphatically. I love Hannibal, and it’s certainly the more appealing option for the masses. But a book like Lincoln in the Bardo doesn’t come around every day, let alone every decade. Starting out it’s strange -how could a novel be made by piecing together news articles and excerpts from days passed? But it works! You’re involved, and even if didn’t eventually exit the historical structure to become a literary play, I’d read the whole thing.

Towards the end of my copy came the inevitable reader’s guide questions. One being:

George Saunders has described the question at the core of this book as, “How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?” Did you find this to be true, and do you feel like you came to a deeper understanding of mortality?

Random House Reader’s Guide for Lincoln in the Bardo

Don’t you wish you could start every date with that line? I think that one deserves a win.

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