“Oh, the pathos of it! – haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”
What can I say about “Lincoln in the Bardo”, by George Saunders? It is beautiful and sad and strange and haunting. I haven’t read another book quite like it. The premise is extraordinary and the writing innovative. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you give in to the literary style, you will be rewarded with a deeply thoughtful treatise on life, death and how history always has an array of perspectives.
First, a quick explanation of Bardo is in order as it saves time in understanding what’s going on. Bardo is a term used in Tibetan Buddhism that describes “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” (Thank you Dictionary.com).
The idea for “Lincoln in the Bardo” came when Saunders read that Abraham Lincoln returned to his son Willie’s crypt several times to hold his body. Somehow that fact gave Saunders an idea to write a book with this simple premise: Willie doesn’t realize he has died. So when his father returns to the cemetery to see him and then vows to come back, Willie decides he is going to stay in the Bardo so he can be with his father. Of course this is not a very good idea and the battle for Willie’s soul begins.
Now if this was a standard novel, the good and evil would be easily seen and understood with the resolution predictable. But this is not a standard novel because there are a host of other ghosts whose conversations with each other, ruminations on young Willie’s predicament, form the meat of the book. These conversations can ramble and sometimes delve into philosophical observations. All these ghosts have outstanding issues from of their own life to contemplate, which is why they are still in the Bardo.
Often they lie to themselves about where they are or why they are there. But something about Lincoln’s devotion to his son intrigued them, so they join together and try to give Willie the nudge he needs to move one while at the same time providing a light into their own existence.
“Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.”
There is a rhythm to “Lincoln in the Bardo”, albeit a unique one. It’s part prose and part poetry. Then it’s like a movie script or play. Then there are news quotes from that period in history thrown in like a Twitter feed to put actual context in the otherworldly scenario. The paragraphs are short and some are more interesting than others. But the tension is real and I found myself rooting not only for Willie, but a few of the other poor souls who have been wondering around the Bardo for who knows how long. For a book that is set in a cemetery and populated with weird, unhappy ghosts, I didn’t feel spooked or depressed. I attribute it to the surreal storytelling. Some may consider this novel bizarre. I found it innovative and thought-provoking. If you want to start the year out with something different, pick up “Lincoln in the Bardo”. Your curiosity will be well rewarded.
Here’s to a Happy New Year of reading!