The idea of the body as analogous to a machine, complete with bugs to be fixed by means of gene modification tools such as Crispr-Cas9, conflicts with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: machines and computers do not evolve, but organisms do. Evolution matters here because bits of code that compromise one function often enhance a second function, or can be repurposed for a new function when the environment shifts. In evolution, everything is grasping for its purpose. Parts that break down can become the next best thing.
Jacobs’s unconventional politics grew out of her temperament. She was allergic to dogma; she followed not an ideology but a methodology. She did not assume, or imagine, or take things on faith; she observed. But she didn’t stop there: She accumulated observations and distilled them into general principles. For her, empiricism and theory were not opposites but complements.
Saunders’s novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity. In fact, it is Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln — caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were — that powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.
Now comes Saunders’ long-awaited first novel, just at the moment when his capacity to hold onto that slender thread of humanity running through the direst social circumstances seems most needed. And it is … a historical novel. About grief. And Abraham Lincoln. It’s not that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t worthwhile. It has many moments of power, and even passages of the sort of lushly sensual prose that hasn’t previously been a Saunders specialty. It definitely marks an advance into new formal territory. It’s just that the timing on this thing is really, really bad. A George Saunders novel seems like just what we need right now, but chances are Lincoln in the Bardo is not the George Saunders novel you’re looking for.