Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I purchased the Kindle version of  Lincoln in the Bardo, immediately after watching Stephen Colbert interview the author one night last week on the Late Show. Colbert introduced George Saunders as “quite possibly my favorite living author.” After reading the book, I can see why. Original, unique, poetic, and ambitious in purpose and technique, Lincoln in the Bardo is engaging, sometimes confusing, and in spots, a bit over my head. But the question the author raises in this book, as well as the hopeful answers he suggests, are what ultimately bring it together for me and make the work stand out as one of a kind:

We seem to be born to love … And then all along, we sort of know that everything is conditional. So how do you, in this world, live joyfully and productively in the face of those two truths?
George Saunders

The story generates from a tragic historic event, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, from typhoid fever. Willie lay sick in his bed in February 1862, the night the Lincolns hosted an elaborate reception at the White House. His mother “could see his lungs were congested and she was frightened.”

Despite his son’s illness, Mr. Lincoln insisted that the party go on, after consulting Dr. Sloan, who “pronounced Willie better, and said that there was every reason for an early recovery.”

Willie died on February 20 and on February 24, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, leaving the President to mourn his son, while leading a nation one-year into civil war.

We did not yet know what it was.

Saunders uses a series of short clips from newspapers, diaries, memoir, and historical accounts to narrate the events surrounding Willie’s death, revealing the perspectives of various onlookers living and working in Washington and at the White House. From them we learn of the public and private gossip surrounding the first family, whose every action receives judgement and commentary, beginning with the Lincoln’s reception:

“Are Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln aware that there is a civil war? If they are not, Mr. and Mrs. Wade are, and for that reason decline to participate in feasting and dancing.”

“Costly wines and liquors flowed freely, and the immense Japanese punch bowl was filled with ten gallons of champagne.”

“Pheasant, partridge, venison steaks, Virginia ham, canvasback duck, fresh turkeys, thousands of Tidewater oysters shucked hours since and iced, slurped raw, scalloped in batter or cracker meal, or stewed in milk…A joint attack of the thousand or more guests failed to deplete it.”

“A piggish and excessive display in a time of war.”

The lavish party lingered until dawn, “yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling host and her husband. They kept climbing the steps to see how Willie was, and he was not dong well at all.”

Despite the criticism,

all the important people had come to it.

Saunders uses the clippings in the same manner to convey public sentiment toward Lincoln, ranging from criticism of his parenting, to speculations on the possible prevention of Willie’s death, to Lincoln’s personal appearance, to his handling of the war and his ability to work through his grief and provide future leadership to the country. It is through these clippings that the author characterizes Abraham Lincoln–the grieving father and wartime president.

A new dimension to the novel is introduced when Lincoln, overcome with grief and desperate to come to terms with his son’s death, visits the crypt where Willie has been freshly buried, removes the body from the casket, and cradles it in his arms. There, in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, we meet the departed Willie, who joins a cast of ghostly and weirdly  humorous residents, trapped in a bardo–a type of limbo, where they are suspended in a transitional state between this world and the next. Each one is in the process of decay, based on the circumstances of his/her death. According to the rules governing this imaginary world that Saunders has created, each resident will remain there until convinced to let go of his/her former life in order to be released to whatever existence lies beyond.

We first meet three long-time residents, central to the plot to convince Willie to move on, despite the fact that he has seen his father and is determined to “last” until he returns.

The young ones, they say, are not meant to tarry.

The first of the trio is Hans Vollman, whose death from a falling plank prevented him from consummating his marriage to a teenage woman. He now wanders with his “quite naked member swollen to the the size of Could not take my eyes off.” (Deleted punctuation, incomplete thoughts that trail off, and inconsistent spelling characterize the descriptions and dialogue of the narrative in the bardo, emphasizing the otherworldly and ghostly nature of the place.)

The second resident, Roger Bevins III, regrets his suicide prompted by the rejection of a gay lover and goes around obsessing over the sensuous nature of the world. “In telling his story, he had gained so many extra noses and hands that his body had all but vanished. Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Nose smelling the hands.”

Reverend Everly Thomas serves as the moral compass for the three who guide the reader through this alternative world. Motivated by a secret later revealed, he remains in the bardo with a fixed expression on his face: “Eyebrows arched high…mouth in a perfect O of terror…and yet spoke with utmost calmness and good sense.”

In their determination to convince Willie to move on, the three engage the other residents in a plan to inhabit Lincoln’s mind and convince him to go back to the crypt, so that Willie can enter him and learn for himself what his father wants him to do.

We wished the lad to go, and thereby save himself. His father wished him to be in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being. A happy confluence of wishes.

In the process of implementing the plan, more characters emerge. Each clamors for the chance to tell his/her story and the circumstances that bind him/her to the bardo, highlighting the many ways that humans squander their time on earth, as they obsess and fret over the the meaningless details. Each claims the stage for a brief moment to convince the listeners of the injustice served in life, before being shoved aside by the next unhappy spirit, eager to tell his/her tale of woe.

None were content All had been wronged Neglected Overlooked Misunderstood…

The graveyard characters are humorously exaggerated in an almost cartoonish fashion. Frugal Mrs. Blass spends her nights “gnawing at rocks and twigs, gathering these things to her, defending them zealously.” Mr. Collier, who died face first in the dirt while worrying about his many possessions “floated horizontally like a human compass, needle facing in the direction of whichever properties he was worried about at the moment.” Mrs. Ellis, who had obsessed over her daughters, was surrounded by three gelatinous orbs representing them. The orbs would grow and weight her down and then disappear, and “she would be tormented until they returned and pursued her again.”

The others include rapists, rape victims, thieves, good and bad mothers, a slave who seeks retribution from his master and a slave who, having experienced some free moments was bothered most by “the thought that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.” They all pile into Lincoln’s mind like circus clowns crowding into a tiny car, and briefly learn his thoughts and sense his purpose. In the process, they become distracted from their own obsessions.

“So many wills, memories, complaints, desires so much raw life-force.”

“They thought as one simultaneously All the good memories of life returned as they were together To stay they had all been faced to fixate on the primary reason for staying to the exclusion of all else.”

Some were convinced to let go and allow themselves to move on to whatever existence awaited. “Then came the familiar, yet always bone-chilling fire-sound associated with the matterlightbloom phenomenon,”heralding their departure.

As Saunders’s character of Lincoln comes to terms with his son’s death–whether persuaded by the residents of the bardo or through his own power of reasoning–he sees in it a reflection of the suffering of others, as well as a call to resume his leadership of the country.

His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took the world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood) and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came in contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all but, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.

This book is not for the passive reader. The layout is confusing and at times it’s difficult to determine who is speaking and under what circumstance. However, perseverance pays off, and the reader who actively pursues the story, the plot, and its meaning will not be disappointed.




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