Lincoln in the Bardo
–Review by Paula Jones
In the long history of literature, very few books can claim to be at-one-and-the-same-time non-fiction, fiction, biography, history, fantasy, philosophy, horror, humor, play, and legend, but Lincoln in the Bardo is exactly that––and that is only one of the reasons why the first short chapters are so difficult to read. It is also exactly why it is almost impossible to put down after the first few pages.
George Saunders builds this masterpiece upon a very real event––the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved 11 year-old son. On February 20, 1862, during the first year of Lincoln’s presidency, and just as the Civil War was cranking up and rapidly intensifying, William Wallace Lincoln (Willie) was struck down by typhoid. Drawing on historical accounts of the days immediately before and after Willie’s death (written or transcribed by actual witnesses to the events) Saunders creatively cuts and pastes a flood of short quotations, many of which contradict each other. The result is a theatrically dramatic dialogue between eyewitnesses to the unfolding drama. The accumulation of these first-hand accounts paints a portrait of a seriously criticized, grief-stricken, faith-challenged, and heartrendingly human Lincoln who had on at least two occasions gone back to his son’s mausoleum in the middle of the night, let himself in with a key, and sat with the decaying body. Onlookers maintain that he remained inside for some time, heaving such great cries of anguish into the night that they could be heard coming through the thick marble walls of the vault. Some claim he removed the body from the casket and gently rocked it as he sobbed.
To this foundation of mostly verifiable truth Saunders adds a ‘spirited’ dose of fiction, fabricating a few more witnesses whose voices add to the dialogue. Because he copiously footnotes both real and invented witnesses, the reader is left to just accept it for what it is or do a little ‘Googling’ to distinguish between the two. Although this can be somewhat frustrating for the history buff, the addition of those voices helps to tie authentic quotations together.
Add to this mixture a multitude of disembodied spirits—decidedly not ghosts for they are neither seen nor heard by humans, yet they are aware of each other. The spirits populate Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, Willie’s resting place (a still-famous cemetery located in Georgetown). Although in the cemetery, they are occupants of The Bardo, a place of transition similar to Catholicism’s purgatory. The dead who reside there, trapped by their past, refuse to complete their journey to the afterlife. Morbidly introspective, they prattle on and on about their own problems and regrets, the constant self-focus deforming them until they symbolically take on the form of their obsessions. Ironically, the thing that most often turns them into unrecognizable monsters is the thing we call love––love of a person, love of a profession, love of money, love of a dogma. Willie Lincoln is also trapped in The Bardo for a seemingly innocent reason: he refuses to let go of the father he loves, the one who is profoundly suffering and needs comfort.
In an attempt to hold on to life, the spirits use endless euphemisms to deny their demise. Coffins are ‘sick-boxes’ from which they fully expect to emerge. Mausoleums are ‘sick-houses.’ To be alive is to be ‘less sick.’ The spirits are both refined and coarse, proper and bawdy, world-wise and naïve––constituting a diverse community of witty and witless souls who add the humor needed to prevent the book from becoming unbearably depressing. For those who appreciate dark humor, Saunders will allow you to indulge.
Saunder’s writing can move from risqué humor to historical statistics to exquisite beauty in a few short syllables. One spirit––a young gay man who committed suicide––realized too late that he did not wish to die, that he was
. . . squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of everyday being allowed to wander
this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every
sublime thing: a swarm of insects dancing in the slant-rays of August sun; a
trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow, a
waft of beef broth arriving breeze-born from an orange-hued window on a chill
As he repeatedly mourns what he willingly but mistakenly gave up, the reader cannot help but celebrate the beauty of life.
The dialogue of Saunder’s motley crew––living and dead, real and imaginary––is a stream-of-consciousness. It jerks and starts again with voices repeatedly interrupting and speaking over each other, adding layer upon layer of depth to the tale. History and fantasy, humor and horror are mosaicked together until the reader realizes that Willie is not the only Lincoln trapped in an in-between state. Abraham Lincoln himself is unable to move forward because he cannot let go of his beloved son. The resolution comes only after a strikingly written and agonizing emotional catharsis for Lincoln that gives insight into his character, values, and determination to end the war.
LITB allows the reader just a glimpse of how interwoven the personal life and political life of a politician has to be. With the loss of his own beloved boy came fresh insight into the loss of countless sons in a time of war.
His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that . . . his
present state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, 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
either be of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay so low, if he
could help it.
There are some problems in the book. Inconsistently, the spirits who refuse to ‘move on’ are convinced that Willie must do just that. They benevolently try to convince him that he needs to do what they fear above all else. At one place we are told that the spirits must remain in the graveyard until they decide to accept their death and forge ahead to the afterlife, yet near the end of the book, one leaves and returns to the White House with Lincoln. The spirits can drone on a bit too long in places. Small issues like these however do not detract from the compelling and delightfully original story.
Saunders gives no indication that he believes The Bardo is an actual place or state of being. He does not expect the reader to take the spirits he births to be factual. He never meant LITB to be a book of theology, not was he attempting to prescribe doctrine. He does however use his book to explore some of the most important issues with which humans must deal. LITB is a study of the universal heartbreak that is part and parcel of living and dying. It is an up-close scrutiny of loss and grief, an exploration of beauty and horror, and a reflection on transformation through tragedy. It is guaranteed to be like nothing you have ever read before.