In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any otherfor no one but Saunders could conceive it.February 1862. The Civil War is less than on...
|Title||:||Lincoln in the Bardo|
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Lincoln in the Bardo Reviews
I avoid the G word. That’s a determination I like to put off until rereading. But this novel’s certainly masterful. I have read nothing so near perfect in some years. The narrative rides a kind of knife edge, between unbearable sorrow one moment and comic relief the next.
‘Almost unbearably moving’ was what Anthony Burgess used to say about some of the better books he reviewed. I must say the same with regard to Lincoln in the Bardo—it’s almost unbearably moving. It’s about unendurable personal I avoid the G word. That’s a determination I like to put off until rereading. But this novel’s certainly masterful. I have read nothing so near perfect in some years. The narrative rides a kind of knife edge, between unbearable sorrow one moment and comic relief the next.
‘Almost unbearably moving’ was what Anthony Burgess used to say about some of the better books he reviewed. I must say the same with regard to Lincoln in the Bardo—it’s almost unbearably moving. It’s about unendurable personal loss and grief suffered by President Abraham Lincoln when his son, Willie, died at age 11. Much of Abe’s grief is a matter of personal record, discussed in many histories and memoirs of the day. The novel is rendered in part in a cut-and-paste style reminiscent of William Burroughs, though tonally it has nothing to do with his work. I do not mean to deprecate the technique, for in the pastiche sections the effect is brilliant, given that these have been assembled entirely from the works of others.
The fictional sections, however, in the Bardo, are entirely products of the author’s imagination. The setting is Oak Hill Cemetery, in Georgetown, Washington D.C. Aside from the occasional living funeral party, it’s almost entirely occupied by the spirits of the dead, spooks: people buried there whose existences in this interstitial realm—before rebirth, according to certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism—are beset by karmic reckonings in the form of a host of phantasmagorical torments. So there is their unendurable personal loss and grief, too. Their suffering is the obverse of Abe’s. In terms of sheer emotional impact the novel’s part Dante’s Inferno and part Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo. A deeply satisfying novel. ...more
Sorry Saunders, but I disliked your novel. Clearly, I'm swimming against the current on this one. Having read some convincing reviews, I thought it must be included in my TBR this year. Well, I almost tossed it aside 100 pages in and probably should have and not given it a rating.
This is a read of loss. A parent - president Lincoln - has lost his 11 year old son to an illness.
The bardo - is the place between heaven and hell - a purgatory of sorts. It's a story of ghosts, and of Willie, who are Sorry Saunders, but I disliked your novel. Clearly, I'm swimming against the current on this one. Having read some convincing reviews, I thought it must be included in my TBR this year. Well, I almost tossed it aside 100 pages in and probably should have and not given it a rating.
This is a read of loss. A parent - president Lincoln - has lost his 11 year old son to an illness.
The bardo - is the place between heaven and hell - a purgatory of sorts. It's a story of ghosts, and of Willie, who are stationed between life and the afterlife - the conversations that take place; the longing of missed ones; missed lives.
I can't give it the kudos others have - for me it was overwrought with too much sadness, despair and ghostly spirits. The writing was fragmented with quotes and no quotations.
Maybe I'd have been more sympathetic had I been American and able to relate to some history? Likely not.
I thought as I forced myself to read this, it might be easier to be among the dead than forcing myself to continue on, but I really didn't want to be stuck in some sort of hell with similar characters.
Ok that was harsh - it did have an interesting twist on death and did make me wonder in those short hours just after we lose someone, does this space exist? And did remind me of the accountability we each hold living this human life the best we can.
BUT, there was really no plot, little character development.
I'm glad to be done and returning this back to the shelf where it can sit with other ghostly (ghastly) weirded out stories.
2⭐️ and a sigh of relief to be done. ...more
The form of this novel is what readers will notice first. It begins as a series of quotes from reporters’ notebooks, eyewitness accounts, historians using original sources, and we must assume, Civil War-era gossip rags, describing an 1862 White House party which a thousand or more people attended. To say the affair was elaborate understates the case. Apparently when a thousand hungry guests descended on the tables of food, the quantity was such that it looked untouched after the assault.
Some of The form of this novel is what readers will notice first. It begins as a series of quotes from reporters’ notebooks, eyewitness accounts, historians using original sources, and we must assume, Civil War-era gossip rags, describing an 1862 White House party which a thousand or more people attended. To say the affair was elaborate understates the case. Apparently when a thousand hungry guests descended on the tables of food, the quantity was such that it looked untouched after the assault.
Some of the reports mention that this lavish dinner party was going on during the war between the states (1862), and while Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, lay dying upstairs, probably of typhoid. Some accounts criticize rather than report. Some are clearly inaccurate: “There was a large moon”; or “there was no moon.” Surely there can be no argument about these truths; one of the accounts must be untrue.
As the novel progresses, it changes form. The reportage becomes a chorus, as voices of the bardo—that state of existence between death and rebirth—declaim and consider the suffering of Lincoln as he contemplates his son’s death. Father and son (who’d been but a child!) had been intimates, together at every opportunity, heads often canted towards one another in deep conversation. The voices of the bardo are bawdy, rowdy, yet weirdly profound in their discussion of how fleeting life and how final death and what we learn in the course of a life and what we learn only when we’ve lost it all.
A bardo implies rebirth, but these characters appear to be looking only to escape everlasting nothingness, and enjoy discussing and dissecting the lives of others. Occasionally one of the dead will enjoy a peek at their future (best) selves, which they hadn’t the time or the opportunity to attain. It can be quite moving as each considers his or her life. And here, amidst the humor and tragedy and regret and outright joy—the stuff of life—resides the talent of George Saunders, as he tries to reach his best self, whether in love, work, or understanding.
It’s difficult to believe this is Saunders’ first published novel, and yet that is its designation. It doesn’t even seem like a novel, but immediately brings to mind a radio show, something meant to be spoken aloud, in its many and varied voices. The thread of the novel is not difficult to follow like some avant-garde works, though one may wonder if Lincoln’s sorrow at the death of Willie is all Saunders meant to convey. I think not.
I think there is another step that Saunders wants us to take: that the spirits of the bardo (how it begins to sound like bordello, the more we know of it!) influenced Lincoln when his son died, giving him insight, empathy, and the strength to carry on with his responsibilities, and to bear his personal sorrow, but also the sorrows of a nation at war. We have yet to meet the man who could have stood it alone.
"His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact…We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings…Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces…And yet…Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective…We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and…Kill more efficiently…Must end suffering by causing more suffering…His heart dropped at the thought of the killing…"So, we must fight, if fighting is required, to defeat wherever oppression exists. We must work together, and we’ll need all the help we can get from those who have glimpsed truth, and the value of kindness.
In a radio podcast with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Saunders tells us that in his research he discovers that Lincoln could have negotiated an end to the war in 1862 when the casualty levels were terrifically high. He must have wanted to end the slaughter so desperately, but one requirement of the agreement would have been to return the slaves to the South, and Lincoln simply refused. The black people who make an appearance in this novel live cruelly unfair and insecure lives.
One could make the case that a novel of this kind is not unprecedented. Think of the ancient Greeks with their choruses of wise and not-so-wise men; Italy’s Dante with his examination of the good or bad we do in life affecting our placement in the afterlife; England’s Shakespeare with his oft-found articulate spirits remarking on the action; Ireland’s Beckett (and his influence Joyce) for language and the insight wrapped in foolishness; America’s Barth and Mamet for exactitude and a deep, abiding humor when rationality might suggest despair.
The rich variety of voices in this novel are captured in the audio production of this book. In an interview published in time.com, Saunders explains how the Penguin Random House team worked with him (kudos, everyone) to get the requisite 166 voices, including famous stage and screen actors like David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, among others, to speak the parts so that it sounds like the “American chorale” Saunders was trying to convey.
At the same time, I found it helpful to have a written text to clarify Saunders’ experimental form which uses footnotes interspersed with conversation among ghosts. I adored what Saunders was able to tell us from his advanced age of 58 years—the stuff about not doing anything you can’t adequately explain to heaven’s gatekeepers, and how “it wasn’t my fault” actually isn’t much of a defense when one has been lingering in the afterworld for more than fifty years, unable to convince even a bleeding-heart saint that one wasn’t a douche that time.
Links to an audio clip of this production are posted on my blog, along with a short, three-minute New Yorker Video about Saunders and his writing life. ...more
This is an intriguing book; one that is very inventive and yet its basic premise is based on strong possibilities, if not probabilities. There are brief historical excerpts throughout from various sources that are amazing in that they outline stronger than ever that “eye witness” testimony is pretty much wasted without a camera to back it up. For example, on a historically memorable night 5 or 10 people can look at the same night sky and see no moon at all, or a moon – but in about 5 or 6 differ This is an intriguing book; one that is very inventive and yet its basic premise is based on strong possibilities, if not probabilities. There are brief historical excerpts throughout from various sources that are amazing in that they outline stronger than ever that “eye witness” testimony is pretty much wasted without a camera to back it up. For example, on a historically memorable night 5 or 10 people can look at the same night sky and see no moon at all, or a moon – but in about 5 or 6 different colors and shapes. They can also look at a man’s eyes and see different colors and different expressions. The subjectivity and deception of our senses are brought to life more in this book than any other I have read.
Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, becomes ill and dies. The Lincoln family are devastated by the loss of their 11 year old boy. Unknowingly, President Lincoln’s deep pain of mourning and promises made at his son’s interment site are anchoring young Willie and preventing him from leaving the state of Bardo and moving on.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Bardo is comprised of several different levels of consciousness that a soul after death ideally moves through to reach the afterlife or next life entry level. There are ways to prepare oneself for these stages while still living, but most souls will have to find their way through the various stages on their own. These stages are recognizable in the various “grounded” souls that Willie comes into contact with. The dialogues here are funny, poignant, and sad – separately and all at once. These souls tell their stories throughout the book – some clearer than others. Sometimes when they get ‘stuck’ in their story they receive prompting from others who have heard their stories literally thousands of times before and have them memorized.
The storyline clips back and forth between President Lincoln, the small excerpts from his admirers and detractors, and the various souls in the graveyard, all of them stuck in some level of Bardo that is still attached to earthly concerns.
There are so many aspects of this book that impressed me, and while I couldn’t help but feel the intense sadness of President Lincoln and his family, I was also entertained by the stories and the wide variety of states of consciousness of the souls in Bardo. I actually feel guilty saying that – but some of the exchanges were just plain funny.
This is an impressive book for so many reasons and in the end, I was left with the kind of feeling you get when walking out of a theatre after watching an especially good movie. The bemused smile on the face, the eyes half in this world and half still seeing parts of the movie, the mind at rest yet still processing what it just witnessed. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves that “after-movie” feeling with none of the accompanying partial deafness.
One of my great passions in life is reading – and reviewing – books. But how to review this book? It renders me speechless and. I almost feel compelled to reduce my review to two words: “Read it.”
Years ago, I learned, while visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, that Abraham Lincoln was so prostrated by grief after the death of his favorite son Willie that he visited the crypt for months afterwards, opening the coffin and stroking the face and hair of his deceased son. It’s a maca One of my great passions in life is reading – and reviewing – books. But how to review this book? It renders me speechless and. I almost feel compelled to reduce my review to two words: “Read it.”
Years ago, I learned, while visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, that Abraham Lincoln was so prostrated by grief after the death of his favorite son Willie that he visited the crypt for months afterwards, opening the coffin and stroking the face and hair of his deceased son. It’s a macabre image but one that is sears at the very heart of anyone who has lost a loved one.
This image is the seed from which Lincoln in the Bardo sprouts. The Bardo, in Tibetian Buddhism, is a sort of limbo state between death and rebirth into the next life. Willie lingers in that state, unable to move forward, while his father languishes in his own bardo: needing to take the helm and steer the country forward while feeling near paralyzed by his despondency.
The book is peopled by ghosts except for three of the living: the president, the night watchman, and a woman in a home across from the graveyard. Using a Greek chorus approach, many characters speak in turn – Willie and many of his fellow deceased who cannot move on and two of the three living characters. We never hear Abraham Lincoln’s own voice.
Even more remarkably, the book not only intertwines and living and the dead, it also intertweaves history. There are direct quotes from the time (all annotated) as well as fictional quotes from the time (also “annotated”) and then there are the voices. Only the most precise historian would be able to decipher what is real and what is invented.
Yet it almost doesn’t matter because the book is not just – or even primarily -- about Abraham and Willie. It is about Every Man. And here is where it becomes remarkable. As the chorus reminds us: “Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering, our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see each other in this way. As suffering, limited beings—Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”
George Saunders, in soaring and lyrical prose that sometimes approaches poetry, advances the theme that whatever happens to us after we die, it won’t be entirely unconnected to what we are while living. By the end of the novel, I was convinced that this was not a death story. It’s a love story – a love story for humanity and all that interconnects us.
One of the characters says, “One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.” To understand our own story and to have the understanding and grace to tell it is truly what matters. This may be one of my favorite contemporary books ever.
In this award winning piece of historical fiction, a blend of fact and fiction, Saunders writes of 1862, the American Civil War has been raging for less than year, now intensifying to unbearable proportions with the rising tide of the dead. Amidst this background, Lincoln is facing his very own personally traumatic and testing times. After having already lost a son earlier, his gravely ill 11 year old son, Willie, dies and is laid to rest in Georgetown cemetery with a devastated Lincoln visiting In this award winning piece of historical fiction, a blend of fact and fiction, Saunders writes of 1862, the American Civil War has been raging for less than year, now intensifying to unbearable proportions with the rising tide of the dead. Amidst this background, Lincoln is facing his very own personally traumatic and testing times. After having already lost a son earlier, his gravely ill 11 year old son, Willie, dies and is laid to rest in Georgetown cemetery with a devastated Lincoln visiting. From here, Saunders spins an emotionally powerful, wildly imaginative, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful tour de force. The bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist term referring to the time period, 'transition', between death and rebirth, with time spent there determined by the kind of life lived and the nature of the death. Willie is in his bardo, where nothing will ever be the same again, trapped there by the love of his father.
The echo of Lincoln's deluge of suffering is writ large amongst the bereavement and grief of a nation at war. In the bardo, a cacophony and confusion of narrators, the ghosts of the dead, a myriad of voices, have their own stories to impart, chaotic, anarchic, and harmonic. Lincoln does not have the luxury of drowning in a sea of black at the loss of his precious Willie, and despite being riddled by doubts and guilt, the country needs him at the helm in these troubling times. Saunders gives us a wonderfully inspiring, lyrical, humorous, witty and offbeat read, which to be honest I found rather hard to read on occasion, but never less than moving, on the fundamental themes of life and death. Simply extraordinary and highly recommended. Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC. ...more
I had a complicated relationship with this book. The writing was exquisite and I was amazed at the brilliance of the author, but there were also long sections where I felt completely lost.
The tide runs out but never runs in. The stones roll downhill but do not roll back up.
What I'm about to write doesn't even begin to sum this book up! President Abraham Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son Willie passes away after an illness. However, Willie doesn't realize he's dead. His soul is stuck in a t I had a complicated relationship with this book. The writing was exquisite and I was amazed at the brilliance of the author, but there were also long sections where I felt completely lost.
The tide runs out but never runs in. The stones roll downhill but do not roll back up.
What I'm about to write doesn't even begin to sum this book up! President Abraham Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son Willie passes away after an illness. However, Willie doesn't realize he's dead. His soul is stuck in a transitional phase along with the other ghosts who populate the cemetery. On the evening of the funeral, Lincoln returns to the cemetery and cradles his dead son's body. The ghosts are amazed at the rare scene of a tenderness towards the dead. Lincoln leaves, but promises to return. It's unwise for a child to stay in the transitional realm for long, so some of the ghosts attempt to usher Willy into the next realm. Willie is determined to stay and wait for his father, so the ghosts must concoct a plan to convince him to move on.
Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget. Lord, what is this?
George Saunders is always recommended to me when I mention my love of Helen Phillips, and now I know why! The storytelling is surreal and the imagery is bizarre, sometimes grotesque. Lincoln in the Bardo is both humorous and devastatingly sad. This 368-page book is actually rather short on words (the audiobook is only 7 hours and 25 minutes). Part of it is like a play and the other part is constructed from excerpts of other sources, both real and imagined. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and Reverend Everly Thomas serve as our guides in the transitional stage between life and death. The form these ghosts take relate to unresolved issues at the time of their death. Hans Vollman died before he was able to consummate his marriage, so he walks around naked with a massive, swollen "member." Roger Bevins became hyper-aware of the world's beauty right before his death, so he's covered with eyes, hands, and noses. In a sad twist, these ghosts don't realize they are dead; they refer to their corpses as "sick-forms" and their coffins as "sick-boxes." They believe they will resume their lives eventually.
One feels such love for the little ones, such anticipation that all that is lovely in life will be known by them, such fondness for that set of attributes manifested uniquely in each: mannerisms of bravado, of vulnerability, habits of speech and mispronouncement and so forth; the smell of the hair and head, the feel of the tiny hand in yours—and then the little one is gone! Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world. From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.
It was really interesting how fact and fiction work alongside each other in this story. I was amazed at how Saunders juxtaposed pieces from various sources to create a complete picture, especially since many of the reports are contradictory. Some of the historical chapters were especially memorable:
1) Conflicting descriptions of the moon on the night of Willie's death - There's something beautiful about the unreliability of our memories.
2) Descriptions of Lincoln's appearance - He's described as an ugly man by many, but those who are more closely acquainted see him a little differently.
3) Criticism of the Lincoln during the Civil War - I couldn't help but think of the modern day while reading the intense and sometimes vulgar criticism of Abraham Lincoln. One of the detractor's comments would've been right at home in a YouTube comment section!
I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant. He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.
The heart of the novel is the strength of the bond between President Lincoln and Willie. In one interview, Saunders mentions the idea for this novel started with a vision he had of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta combined. That image came through crystal clear in the text, because the first thing I thought of when Lincoln holds is son was Michelangelo's Pietà. The pathos permeates the pages. Willie's intense need to be close to his father broke my heart. I felt the immense weight of both grief and the presidency on Abraham Lincoln's shoulders in a way that I've never gotten from my nonfiction reading. As he grieves for his beloved son, he agonizes over the decisions he has made as president. He was intellectually aware of the casualties of war, but there's a shift in him as he's forced to deal with the loss of his own son.
We had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departure caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.
I enjoyed the idea of visiting with the other ghosts more as a general idea than in practice. There were so many characters and I didn't have patience for all of them. Maybe it was that we didn't get to spend that much time with them. Most of the time I wanted to get back to the Lincolns. A combination of the strange imagery and each ghost's distinct nineteenth-century speaking style made some of their voices difficult for me to read. The style was sometimes so opaque, that my mind couldn't penetrate it; sometimes I was just reading words, unable to extract any meaning from them. It didn't help that the names of the speakers were placed after they spoke, especially with the longer passages. Perhaps that's less of a concern in audio (distinct voices) or print (easier flipping). The hype around this book intensified my frustration. I checked the average rating after a sixty-page struggle and had one of those "Oh crap! I'm the only person in the world that doesn't understand this!" moments. If you hit a section that makes you feel more frustration than transcendence, you're not alone! I'm not saying any of this to discourage anyone from reading it, but to help anyone who is having similar struggles. It was worth it for me to continue through my frustration because some of my favorite moments are at the end, when Lincoln wrestles with decisions about the war.
Pale broken thing. Why will it not work. What magic word made it work. Who is the keeper of that word. What did it profit Him to switch this one off. What a contraption it is. How did it ever run. What spark ran it. Grand little machine. Set up just so. Receiving the spark, it jumped to life. What put out that spark? What a sin it would be. Who would dare. Ruin such a marvel. Hence is murder anathema.
All that being said, there were exceptions. I was touched by the woman who worried about the three daughters she left behind and the stories from the black contingent of ghosts was highly relevant. Some of the most heartbreaking scenes were watching the ghosts cycle through forms they were never able to realize. I've never felt more confronted about the transience of life or how our physical bodies are just temporary vessels. Tomorrow is never a guarantee, but it's easy to forget as we live our day-to-day lives. There's so much to learn from these ghosts as we see how they view their past lives and learn about their regrets. Somehow everything looks completely different once there are no more chances! I was hopeful that the inhabitants of the cemetery, including Willie, would be able to make peace with themselves and find a way to complete their journey.
He is just one. And the weight of it about to kill me. Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders
I don't always have the easiest time with ghost stories, but the way these ghosts affect President Lincoln reminded me of the power of reading--how it allows the voices and experiences of those real and imagined, dead and alive shape who we are and influence our viewpoints. As the weight of new experiences overwhelms President Lincoln, a stronger empathy and sense of purpose arise in him. He knows what he must do to preserve the union. Under the disapproving eye of a nation, we watch as he comes to the steadfast conclusion that the "the swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest." (Hans Vollman's words)
Reading this novel is a wholly unique experience. It's brilliant and emotionally powerful, but sometimes confusing (for me).
My lack of star rating is not the same as zero--it's just an indication that I can't fit this book in any kind of rating system! One, two, or three stars seem too low because there were parts that I was amazed by, but four or five stars doesn't seem honest to my overall experience.* This book is hard to compare to anything else. As far as oddness, eerie atmosphere and the depth of emotion I felt, I was reminded of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. For a more resoundingly positive review, I recommend reading Colson Whitehead's analysis in The New York Times and watching the "immersive narrative short" at the end.
Edit 3/20/17: Decided on 3 stars. I liked it, but not overwhelmingly so.
I received this book for free from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. Its publication date is February 14, 2017. ...more
‘’My mother, I said. My father. They will come shortly. To collect me’’
Death is a cruel, cynical visitor. Sometimes invited, others unexpected, many more anticipated. Death is blind to age, race, religion, kindness or evilness. He does not discriminate, he takes everyone. He is the one certain thing in the life of every living creature. An unavoidable, unquestionable snatcher. However, don’t we all desire to know what happens next? Perhaps, this is what makes us so afraid, the fear of being lo ‘’My mother, I said. My father. They will come shortly. To collect me’’
Death is a cruel, cynical visitor. Sometimes invited, others unexpected, many more anticipated. Death is blind to age, race, religion, kindness or evilness. He does not discriminate, he takes everyone. He is the one certain thing in the life of every living creature. An unavoidable, unquestionable snatcher. However, don’t we all desire to know what happens next? Perhaps, this is what makes us so afraid, the fear of being lost forever. Whatever it may await, I hope it will be better than the Bardo. A state where souls that haven’t been set free linger, awaiting the next spirit to join their nightmarish Chorus. The Limbo, devoid of everything. A place visited by no God, no Devil. A battlefield, a community whose agony and frustration mirrors the society of the living.
This is where Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s son, finds himself shortly after he dies of a visceral fever. It is said that the great President would visit his child for many days, holding him and thus chaining him to a state where Willie cannot move on, keeping his soul in captivity. Saunders creates this monumental, extraordinary work around this incident and through Lincoln’s devastation, Willie’s uncertainty and confusion and the despair of all the trapped souls that become our guides in this horrifying journey, he weaves a tale of death, love and remembrance. I won’t comment on this experimental style, the theatrical format and the extraordinary ability to create a unique language for each narrator. For me, these elements aren’t important. What is important is the wealth of themes and issues that make the novel one of the most bizarre and fascinating experiences in the life of the reader.
‘’Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening.’’
If I had to choose the one thing that made this novel so powerful, it would have to be the crystal clear way in which Saunders depicts the human soul in its kindest and worst aspects. This was obvious in the various views on Abraham Lincoln expressed by the spirits and by the extracts of the press in the era of the Civil War. Demons who desired to keep people chained because they had a different skin colour regarded him as a murderer who dragged their precious sons to war. But they said nothing of the dead sons of their ‘’property’’, the raped women, the absolute loss of any trace of human dignity they inflicted on others in their bloody plantations. As we travel through the Bardo, in the chapters that describe the various stages of Willie’s wandering, we see a nation divided by conflicting aspirations and expectations. We see the souls of criminals, prostitutes, noble born people who have come to realize that Death isn’t particularly dazzled by wealth and status. Their pain, despair and struggle for acceptance echo the universe of the living. The two realms are hardly different and while the pitiful ghosts battle with themselves to retain some sort of human identity, they also battle with each other because old habits die hard, if at all. In most of the characters, the difference to their breathing counterparts is little, they hardly regret their faults, all too eager to put the blame on someone else and lure Willie into their cold company.
Saunders writes a sublime elegy of the tremendous, frightening impact of a child’s death on the surviving family. It is a tragedy beyond words, a catastrophe that we don’t even dare to picture in our minds. The grief of good President Abraham is devastating to read, the pain of Mrs Lincoln tears through the soul. Girls that didn’t have the chance to live their love, young men who died on the battlefield, a priest who tried to fulfill his mission as best as he could, a young woman who was raped repeatedly by her master. There is so much pain and yet, the message never becomes dark or pessimistic. Even in the most brutal moments, a glimpse of hope shines through to remind us that, perhaps, if we really try to come together, to respect each other, a better world might become possible. This was Lincoln’s vision, a vision that has been viciously massacred by the majority of the presidents who have occupied the White House in recent History….Not to mention the state the world has found itself today…
Many things have been said about Lincoln In The Bardo. Some may consider it verbose, pretentious, illogical. That is understandable. Not every book is for every reader. For me, this is one of the very finest moments in Literature. Not because it won the Man Booker Prize. Many winners have come and gone and I found them mediocre, forgettable. Not because of the experimental style. Many books have served this technique well, many more will do so in the future. Technicalities don’t matter. It is a masterpiece because it pays homage to the struggles and seemingly futile causes that helped made this Creation a more tolerable place to inhabit. It is a masterpiece because it is written by an author who dived deep into the human soul, found the finest and the worst in all of us and created a tale that is ferocious, sad, haunting, generous, hopeful, tender and fragile. It’s not an easy read but who wants an easy read, anyway?
‘’If I could confer with him, I know he would approve; would tell me it is right that I should go, and come back no more. He was such a noble spirit. His heart loved goodness most.’’
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