Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
Author: George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo is the fictional account of Abraham Lincoln’s one night at the cemetary where his dead 11 year old son has been laid to rest. The story of a father’s deep grief plays out in the backdrop of the Civil War.
The title of the book uses the word ‘Bardo’ and as per Wikipedia, Bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena.
George Saunders, the master short story teller has delivered his first novel based on a historical fact, in an experimental form with stunning effect. It starts with Willie, the 11 year old son of Lincoln on his sickbed. The civil war is on but the White house is decked up for an opulent state reception. The festivities are described through historic accounts of that time. Through the night, Willie gets sicker and dies. Two nights later, the grieving President visits the cemetary where his son is temporarily interred, returning on at least two occasions to hold his dead son’s body. The book focuses on this night and the spirits present in the cemetary. They are in transition or in a ‘bardo’ and the story progresses through the voices of these souls.
If I were to sum up the book in one word, I would say, ‘Unusual’. Lincoln in the Bardo is unusual in content, form and style. The story is little more than ‘one event’, which is the death of Willie Lincoln, the 11 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln. The entire book spans only a single night in the cemetary where Willie’s body is kept. And yet, through the voices that tell the story, we watch entire lives being constructed in as little as a paragraph.
The title seems to suggest that it is Abraham Lincoln who is in the Bardo but in truth it is Lincoln jr, who is stuck in the intermediate, undecided and yet giving a direction to all others when he does speak up.
The narration of the story is through a plethora of voices; rather curiously embodied as distorted forms, hovering in the cemetary in that space between life and afterlife. They are the reluctant dead, dead but reluctant to face the finality of their farewell from the memories and sensations of the physical world.
Interspersed with this continuous narration, which sounds sometimes like a play and sometimes like a film script, are the references taken from historic sources for the purpose of moving the story forward. Some of the sources are imagined.
The result is a curious, interesting medley of observations, made by real people and by spirits which are not so real, with the underlying theme of inconsistency. It is the perspective of the mind which is put in the spotlight, for the various historical accounts differ as to the presence of moon, the countenance of the President, the fact whether he was homely or ugly or even the colour of his hair. The spirits, of course are inconsistent, as we find out later in the book; memories are selective and repetitive and some facts are conveniently forgotten or glossed over.
The main voices in the cemetary are those of Hans Vollerman and Roger Bevins III with the Reverend completing the trio. The spirits in the Bardo are not real people, underlined by the fact that the author chooses to write the names without capitalising them.
The voices are also like the narratives that run in our heads. These are the stories we tell others of our lives and the secrets that we keep bottled up. At times, the chorus of voices grows desperate and comes at us thick and fast.
The medley of voices sometimes turns into a cacophony as the spirits talk at cross purposes, hearing what they want to and replying as they please. Even the background action is supplied by the voices.
The story moves back and forth, as thoughts do in minds. The memories are rehashed and relived, in the minds of the reluctant dead and the living.
“These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now must lose them.”
What works well
Inspite of the many voices, the narrative is cogent and each character or voice is worked through very well. It becomes a delight to encounter them again and again as the book progresses.
In other ways, Lincoln in the Bardo is a sensory feast that packs quite a punch. The absence of the physical form, or a reasonable physical form heightens the reader’s sensibilities so much that the cornucopia of images is a delight and a horror, held together by a sense of awe.
“Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.”
The grief of losing a child is visceral and this is tied neatly to the many other deaths at that time of the Civil War.
Deep themes are explored, those of grief, of the lies we tell ourselves, of racism, even in the Bardo and our grasping of time-wanting more and more. And yet, there is a touch of the irreverent in the book. There are the immense number of eyes, ears, noses, hands for Roger Bevins and there is the swollen member of Hans Vollman which brings a modicum of hilarity. The perpetual ‘o’ of the Reverend’s face, the three orbs representing her daughters that hover in front of Jane Ellis are all an embodiment of fun.
The backdrop of the Civil war is as disturbing to the mind as the deep grief of a recent loss. The popular sentiment of the country is expressed through the spirit of Thomas Havens.
“We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do.”
The imagery is fantastic, especially the veritable feast of sights and hallucinatory visions when the spirits are tempted to move on.
“Rose petals rained down, a joyful provocation: red, pink, yellow, white, purple. Then translucent petals; striped petals; dotted petals; petals inscribed (when you took one from the ground and looked closely at it) with detailed images (down to the broken flower-stems and dropped toys) of one’s childhood yard. Finally golden petals rained down (of real gold!), ticking with each impact against tree or markerstone.”
My only regret is that I have only read the book. Listening to the audio book would be surely a wonderful experience. It’s a rare occasion where I suspect that listening to the audiobook – the full cast of which is apparently an astonishing 166 people – will be a far superior experience to reading the text alone.
A heartbreaking tale that holds up a mirror to the lives we live as well as an exploration of grief and death.
An excellent feast for your senses. Truly imaginative and innovative. Should not be missed.
This is the second review in the 2017 Man Booker shortlisted books that I am doing in collaboration with Bloggeray from Musingsite. Read his excellent review here.