Author: George Saunders
Publication date: February 14, 2017
Genre: historical fiction, literary fiction
My rating: 4.5 / 5 stars
Witty, wise, weird, and wrenching, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary tour-de-force that brims with brilliance and takes a little-known historical event as a lens to examine truths about the human condition. It is quite unlike anything I have read in a long time, and it makes the writer’s intelligence and skill apparent almost immediately. And, somehow, it manages to do this while still being an accessible read that passes far faster than you would expect–though you wish it could last just a tiny bit longer.
To summarize this book in much detail would be to give it away, so all I do apologize for any vague parts of this review. But for context, I give you this: when Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie passed away at age eleven from typhoid, Mr. Lincoln was wracked with grief. Between the loss of his son and his struggles to keep his nation united as the Civil War intensified, he was at a loss for what to do. And so, more than once, he returned to the place where Willie was entombed and held his son’s body. This story is not told by Abraham Lincoln; rather, it is told by two alternating choruses: the fictional ghosts who haunt that cemetery–principally Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas–and the real voices of the past and present giving a semi-factual narrative from primary and secondary sources. Each of the ghosts has a reason they are still lingering in their “sick-box,” rather than moving on, but together they have agreed that young Willie should not tarry long in this world, for death is not kind to the ghosts of the young.
Before moving on, I do want to clarify something quickly about the title, since the word “bardo” is not a common one and is never explained in the story. The term comes from the Tibetan tradition and refers to the state that a soul exists in, between death and its next rebirth, when it is no longer tethered to a body. All the fictional ghosts in this story are residents of this unusual space.
This narrative was told in a format that, though initially jarring, quickly became a perfect vehicle for this sort of story. Rather than a linear narrative, it is more like a play, with its lines spoken by individuals to each other and to the audience. The punctuation, spelling, and formatting vary from character to character, with some censoring their swear words, some uneducated ones misspelling words, and some–including Willie–speaking in fragmented, self-interrupting bursts that jump from topic to topic with irregular spacing and occasional repetition. When there is “narration” for the reader’s sake, we are spoken to by Mr. Vollman, Mr. Bevins, and Rev. Thomas. All the rest is a blend of dialogue and internal monologue, creating a sense of fractured identity, endless recursion, and broken narrative that is all too fitting for a book about the dead who refuse to acknowledge their dead-ness. I will admit, the only reason I docked a half star was because of some occasional weirdness that occurred when Vollman, Bevins, and Thomas spent prolonged periods of time describing actions, which made the text feel clunky, but those moments were few and far between.
Meanwhile, the historical narrative on the side works similarly, with snippets of a sentence or two at a time, each from a different source, chained together in order to fully chronicle the events surrounding Willie’s death and its effects on the President. This cobbling-together of so many sources is something I hadn’t experienced in a book before, but Saunders executes it so seamlessly that sometimes I would forget these were all completely different sources. However, sometimes these recollections, even from primary sources, are contradictory, reminding the reader at all times that history can be subjective, memory is often faulty, and sometimes the best we can do is guess.
This, truly, is one of the biggest overarching themes of the novel: looking back, we can only guess what happened before us; looking ahead, we can only guess what awaits us; in both, the only thing we can do is continue forward. Though the concept is not a new one, Saunders’s unconventional stylings address it in a boldly unique manner that highlights the contours of this phenomenon, both its stark edges and its fuzzy in-betweens.
The thing is, this isn’t just a highbrow literary experiment that only the most pretentious of us can enjoy. After getting used to the unusual formatting, it becomes a surprisingly quick read that shines on many fronts. It’s laced with humor, including a large number of rather lowbrow jokes about a certain ghost’s very large “member” and some truly outrageous dialogue between an angry deceased couple. It touches on significant issues including sexuality (a very major character is a closeted gay man), sexual abuse, and racism (this last one should be obvious, I suppose, given the whole Civil War element), but never in a way that felt tasteless or exploitative. The characters and their stories feel real in a way that guarantees your investment in their outcomes, no matter how wonderful or horrible their fates.
And, most significantly, Lincoln in the Bardo is emotional beyond belief. The end of this book just. Messed. Me. Up. Once I hit the final hundred pages or so, I couldn’t stop reading and stayed up an hour and a half later than intended as a result. It was page-turning, partially because of some major action and chase scenes, but mostly because I needed catharsis, a release of the heart-wrenching tension building inside me on behalf of all these strange and beautiful and broken characters. And, in the last few chapters, it all came to a head–a chaotic, roiling boil, then silence–and I left with an ache in my chest and a paradoxically heavy lightness inside. I can’t even articulate how hard-hitting the conclusion was for me–just know that it was.
Lincoln in the Bardo was my first George Saunders book, but I am certainly going to be seeking out more of his work now. It is elegant but not full of itself, meaningful but not sappy, hopeful but not overly rosy. It is, in short, a prime example of how wonderful literature can be: beautifully painful, wholly immersive, and lastingly impactful.
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: suicide, depression, mention of rape, mention of sexual abuse