Lincoln in the Bardo: Strange and Wondrous

By George Saunders
Random House, 368 pages

What happens the moment we die is the ultimate mystery, so it’s hardly surprising that not even religious traditions agree. Eternal non-existence? Reincarnation? Life after death? Quite a few belief systems speculate a temporary middle ground; Roman Catholicism’s Purgatory is by no means the only doctrine on such matters. George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo draws upon a Tibetan belief in an in-between space in which the departed is neither alive nor dead—the novel’s namesake bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo was a controversial choice for the Booker Prize and not just because of its subject matter; Saunders is the first American writer to win the Booker and it infuriates many in the Brit Lit crowd that Yanks are even considered. That such an “experimental novel” has been honored is another level of debate, though the Booker often goes to works that cause traditionalists to spit out their Earl Grey. The only real question is whether this is a great novel. My verdict? Almost.

The year is 1862 and it has become apparent that the American Civil War will be more charnel house than a hall of heroes. Death becomes very personal to President Lincoln when a typhoid epidemic carries off his eleven-year-old son Willie, a jovial boy beloved by all and the president’s favorite child. This would be a fine book for its unvarnished look at grief alone—many speculate that Willie’s death drove Mary Todd Lincoln mad—but Saunders has a far more ambitious goal in mind. NPR called this book a “worm’s-eye view of death,” and that’s a pretty good way of describing it. Saunders claims part of what he wanted to communicate is embodied in the way Mary cradles the crucified Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture The Pieta.

The bardo is where one comes to grips with being dead; hence many there are as yet unaware of their fates. Each is present in the condition in which they arrived plus whatever ravages time takes on the physical body. The bardo is imbued with Edward Gorey levels of creepiness stripped of its Edwardian sense of propriety. Young Willie has been (temporarily) laid to rest in a Georgetown crypt until he can be carried back to the family home in Illinois. He doesn’t have much to say, but 166 other “ghosts” have views on everything—some of it unsettling, some amusing, some philosophical, but little of it self-aware. The narrators come from all walks of past lives: slaves, soldiers, hunters, prostitutes, laborers, homemakers…. This many voices would be a muddle, thus Saunders focuses mostly on three. The Rev. Everly Thomas knows he’s dead, but hasn’t moved on for a reason. Our sad ghost is Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay man who committed suicide; and the resident Falstaff is Hans Vollman, an older man who married a younger woman and was just about to consummate their union when a beam fell from the roof and snuffed out of his life, but not his engorged erection.

Saunders spins tales in snippets, few of which are longer than few sentences. His is a masterful job of imagined dialogue stitched to cut-and-paste passages from diaries, history books, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and other written sources. The ghosts are aware of each other and interact—often in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are as amusing as the movie-obsessed ghosts in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply; often their stories are more poignant and tragic.

It’s clear that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t any kind of historical novel, but it’s much harder to say what, exactly, we should call it. It’s a fascinating read that I devoured in just two sittings, but I’m less willing to slap the “experimental” label onto it. Saunders’ technique is quite similar to that of Edgar Lee Masters in his 1915 Spoon River Anthology, which has the added merit (and difficulty) of having been written in verse. It also bears resemblance in set-up and tone to Kevin Brockmeier’s underappreciated masterwork The Brief History of the Dead (2006). Brockmeier built upon Eastern African tribal eschatology in which the living become Sasha at death—a kind of holding pattern where one stays until the last person still alive who remembers you passes away. Only then is one Zanan (dead).

So perhaps Saunders’ book isn’t quite as unique as some would have it. It is, however, beautifully written. If, along the way, you wish also to see it as capturing the collateral damage of war, an elegy, or commentary on something grander (the Holocaust?), it is testament to Lincoln in the Bardo that it provokes such thoughts. I can only tell you this: you will know within ten pages whether or not this is your cup of Earl Grey. If you like those ten pages, you will zip through the rest; if not, leave it on the shelf, as the next 358 pages are similar. As for its UK naysayers, the Brits need to get over themselves; this book is far more deserving of the Booker than a lot of previous winners.

Rob Weir

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