Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Pub 2017
I started reading this last year sometime, and got distracted from it early on. At the end of teaching my course this summer, I included this commencement speech by George Saunders as part of the last module, and it reminded me that this book was overdue for reading. So it became part of the vacation book pile (there should be some Japanese or Danish word for that – the pile of books you save and then take on vacation).
The novel is set in Washington DC, specifically in the Georgetown cemetery where Willie Lincoln (son of Abraham) was interred, and even more specifically in the “bardo“, an intermediate state between death and rebirth. Willie appears in the bardo and meets several characters who have been there for a long time, years or decades in some instances. These spirits provide most of the story and dialogue, as they try to coax and coach Willie to remain in this state. These spirits, we learn, are here mostly by choice. They are either afraid to move to the next stage or are in denial about their current state, and have created a society of sorts in the bardo. However, they are all troubled by their inability to truly interact with the living world that routinely visits the graveyard. This begins to change when Abraham Lincoln pays a nocturnal visit to his son’s body in the crypt, and the spirits find that they can influence the living if they work together and try hard enough. In this one night, they are able to save Willie, and possibly Abe, and many of them at last succumb to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon”, transitioning to their next stage beyond the bardo.
The story is told in two parallel streams. The first is a series of dialogues between the bardo spirits. Reading a bit like a play, these dialogues tell the individual stories in bits and pieces and describe the world of the bardo. The characters detail what they see with Willie and during that night, as well as tell their own histories. The second stream consists of mostly historical/some fictional passages from books, letters, news reports, and journals, both contemporary to Lincoln and more modern historical writings. At first, it was difficult to believe that these could all be from real sources, but most are; Lincoln, and especially the tragedy of his son’s death, is well covered in the historical record, so there is a rich trove of source material. These documented pieces from the life and times of Lincoln serve to establish the current state of affairs as well as the reality of the times, at the start of the Civil War, in the days before things like refrigeration or cars or electricity. This, along with the commentary about Abe Lincoln at the cemetery that night, appearing interspersed with the bardo dialogues, enhances the believability of the bardo and its inhabitants.
The novel consists of many short chapters, each comprised of the historical snippets or the spirits’ dialogue, and although complex in structure and material, it is an absorbing, engaging story, with a more than one gasp-inducing twist. I enjoyed this book, and finished it in one day. I experienced similar engagement with reading Saunders’ short stories in Tenth of December – the can’t-put-it-down grip of a well told tale. More Saunders in my future for sure.
Fate: I likely won’t read this one again, so will pass it along to another reader.