Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Author: George Saunders

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Rating: (4.25/5)

“It is soon to be spring    The Christmas toys barely played with    I have a glass soldier whose head can turn    The epaulettes interchangeable    Soon flowers will bloom    Lawrence from the garden shed will give us each a cup of seeds I am to wait    I said”

Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike any novel I have ever read. In fact, the format is entirely unique. But it’s perfectly suited to the story (or, perhaps more appropriately, stories) Saunders spins. It left me feeling a little hypnotized, somewhat reverent, entirely intrigued, and hungry for more.

“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.”

The premise of the novel is President Lincoln’s midnight visit to his recently deceased son’s grave. He is seeking comfort, meaning, and a way to continue on. The civil war has just started, and the only person who doubts him more than the American people is himself. How can he be the leader his country needs if he cannot bring himself to optimism? How can he order more death when he has just learned what it is to lose one’s son?

But Lincoln is not really a character in the novel. Instead, his trip is narrated and annotated by the remnants of past souls who, having unfinished business or feeling their life was not properly recognized, have not accepted their death and wait for the opportunity to return. They are all unique, with rich backstories and wonderfully metaphorical physical manifestations of that which they feel is unfinished. For example, Roger Bevins III changed his mind mid-suicide, and “even now” lies upon the floor of his kitchen, bleeding, waiting to be found and resuscitated. Here, in this place, his hunger to experience all the beauty of the world, which he came so close to throwing away,  manifests as an innumerable quantity of arms, legs, eyes, noses.

Among these is Willie Lincoln, who struggles to understand whether he is meant to go or stay. He is compelled to go, but his father has promised to return.

“Let them have their chance, someone cried from the throng. In this place, we are all the same. Speak for yourself, someone else shouted. And we heard the sound of blows.”

“And yet, still: I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments. Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.”

No story about Lincoln would be complete without a commentary on slavery and racism. Sauders masters it. The issue is not tangent to the novel, but natural. It is a focus without being the focus. He did a great job of bringing the era’s political climate to life and making it so much more relatable than anything I have read before.

I also listened to parts of this book as an audiobook because it has gotten a lot of attention. The book’s format is unique, so the audiobook is, too. With a cast of 166 voice actors, including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore and Ben Stiller, it is an impressive work of art. George Saunders himself even read one of the main characters. However, I found that the format of the novel made it kind of difficult to follow as an audiobook (or, at least, to get its full effect), so I ended up switching back to print.

At the end of the day, here’s my review: Don’t miss this one.

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