Lincoln in the Bardo
“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict. When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be?”
― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
A couple of decades ago I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a book that I still remember as being an strikingly funny collection of short stories linked by the titular worn out amusement park. George Saunders wrote that book, but I had not read any of his not unsubstantial writing since then until his latest book and first novel won the Man Booker Prize.
This book, his first true novel, is memorable as well. It depicts a Lincoln trapped in the Bardo (a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife), namely Willie, the dear 11-year-old son of the great civil war president. As his parents host a lavish state reception, their boy is upstairs in the throes of typhoid fever. Saunders quotes contemporary observers on the magnificence of the feast, trailing the terrible family tragedy that is unfolding. Willie dies and is taken to Oak Hill cemetery, where he is interred in a marble crypt. On at least two occasions – and this is the germ of historical fact from which Saunders has spun his extraordinary story – the president visits the crypt at night, where he sits over the body and mourns.
Saunders tells his tale through use of a polyphonic narrative of the spirits who are trapped in the cemetery that is interleaved with constellations of artfully arranged quotations from primary and secondary sources about Lincoln’s life, which are used to show that observers can be unreliable about the motivations and mental state of the president, and that even such questions as whether the moon shone or not on a particular night can be distorted by memory.
The torrent of quotation, set against the torrent of spirit voices, gives Lincoln in the Bardo the feel of the parts of the Book of the Dead where the soul is beset by wrathful demonic hordes. This cacophony, and the grotesquerie of the deformed spirits, lends the novel a texture that is superficially unlike the work that has made Saunders popular, stories that often play off the tension between a casual vernacular voice and a surreal situation. Lincoln in the Bardo in some ways seemed to have lot in common with the theme park and office space I remember from the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
In The Tibetan Book of the Dead waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all “bardos”, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterizes human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body. The Book of the Dead is intended to be read to them during this journey, an instruction manual to assist them on their way.
Some of the characters stand out more than others and there are memorable moments; however the presentation sometimes seems contrived and at times becomes a bit tedious. These moments aside, the brevity of the book and the interesting historical aspects of the story carried this reader forward through a text that was briefer than expected due to the prevalence of white space. The interchange among the "residents" in the cemetery took on the feel of a play, perhaps one like Our Town, although entertaining more for its oddities than its plain wholesomeness.
The combination of a unique authorial style along with a multitude of historical details made this a historical novel that I would recommend to all interested in the history of this era. It is certainly a presentation of a moment from Abraham Lincoln's life that is different than any I have ever previously encountered.