Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 
published 2017

 
 
Lincoln in Bardo 1


[The dead souls in the cemetery are talking about Abraham Lincoln]


XLV
 
 
There was a touch of prairie about the fellow.
hans vollman

Yes
roger bevins iii

Like stepping into a summer barn late at night
hans vollman

Or a musty plains office, where some bright candle still burns.
roger bevins iii

Vast. Windswept. New. Sad.
hans vollman

Spacious. Curious. Doom-minded. Ambitious.
roger bevins iii

Back slightly out.
hans vollman

Right boot chafing.
roger bevins iii

 
 
Lincoln in Bardo 2
 
commentary: Whatever else 2017 may hold, it looks like being a good year for books. I read this in January, and think that it will certainly be one of the best books I read this year, quite likely the best. It is a most extraordinary work, and one that does not resemble any other book I have ever read. I think I have to start with the publishers’ description:
February 1862. The Civil War rages while President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son is gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body. 
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory -- called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo.
In fact the word bardo doesn’t appear in the body of the book at all (I had to look it up after I’d finished reading it).

The particularly unusual feature of the book is that it is told in maybe a hundred different voices, often just a few sentences at a time. The souls of the dead in the cemetery push the story along, while telling about their own lives. These sections are interspersed with short quotations from biographical and political books about the Lincoln presidency, which so far as I can tell are all real.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading, but I was captured and enthralled within a couple of pages. The throngs of dead souls become real and distinct as they move around the cemetery; the story of Lincoln’s grief is also real, and affecting. The interspersed passages show again that our grasp of facts is unreliable (people can’t even agree on what colour eyes Lincoln has) and that even when their son had died the Lincolns’ behavior could be discussed and criticized; they could be blamed for their son’s death. (And you thought that was a new thing…?)

It is a sad book but not at all depressing, and is often very very funny.

So difficult to quote from Lincoln in the Bardo – I worry that the extract above will look off-putting rather than the marvel it is. You quickly get used to the style, and then it is a very easy read: it is simple and straightforward. I couldn’t always work out exactly what was going on, but that didn’t matter.

A line like
We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.
roger bevins iii
can completely catch you with its straightforwardness.

Even though it is a book about dead souls, it is full of warmth and light and good nature: it is, it seemed to me, about the ultimate lovability of human beings, and their attempts to attain goodness despite all the bad things we cannot pretend don’t exist within us and outside us. I would say it could only have been written by someone with a very good heart.

It is astounding.

Picture of Abraham Lincoln from the Smithsonian.

Photograph from the Library of Congress shows Willie Lincoln (left), who died Feb. 20, 1862, age eleven, and his younger brother Tad (Thomas), posed with their mother's nephew, Lockwood Todd, in Mathew Brady's studio in Washington, D.C.







































Comments

  1. Oh, Moira, I keep hearing such good things about this one. Yes, the structure is unusual, but people keep saying what an amazing story it is. And I do love the historical aspect of it. With a ringing endorsement like yours, I don't know how I could resist...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's wonderful. It might not be to everyone's taste, I can see that, but I cannot not recommend it!

      Delete
  2. This one sounds worth a try for sure. Maybe not too soon, but someday. I like books that explore the afterlife in this way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do really recommend it, Tracy. If you get the chance do read it - if you have an interest in the afterlife it is an even better read.

      Delete
  3. Thank you for reminding me! I saw Saunders on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert a couple of weeks ago and wanted to get this book. My sieve-like brain forgot, of course. Saunders is wonderful...and very funny, too. It's no surprise he was a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. His collection of short stories (Tenth of December) were wonderful, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh that must have been interesting. I haven't read anything else by him to date: Yesterday I bought another copy of this book to give someone as a present, and the guy at the till told me to read Tenth of December. Looks like I'll have to.

      Delete
  4. Replies
    1. You have too much on your plate already, but actually you might almost enjoy this one. In a weird way.

      Delete
  5. Col Colman, give it a try.

    I agree, it's the very best of the year, Moira—and a couple of weeks ago I was the luckiest: I read from it with George Saunders at a Calgary Wordfest event. Rather than read by himself, he likes to ask other people to take voices. It was a true honour to read from it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow Marina, that is so impressive and I am so jealous! He sounds like a really nice man as well as being a great writer.
      Paula, I'm so sorry I just accidentally deleted your comment, such clumsy fingers. But totally agree with you, it would be so cool to try to give voice to one of the voices...

      Delete
    2. I wish you could have been there too! He is the nicest man, no pretension or swelled-headedness, although he has every excuse. This is a long tour for him, but he was generous and funny and kind.

      Delete
  6. Paula Carr wrote this comment, which I accidentally deleted:

    That is VERY cool. I could imagine some of the voices being a ton of fun to bring alive, as it were

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment