Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Posted February 10, 2017 by Taryn in Reviews / 2 Comments

Lincoln in the Bardo by George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Published by Random House Publishing Group on February 14th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical, Ghost
Pages: 368
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: NetGalley
Buy on Amazon

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. He’s stuck in a transitional phase with 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 the 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.

2 responses to “Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

  1. I finished Lincoln in the Bardo yesterday, and know I’m going to struggle with a review. Like you, I thought the ideas were brilliant and I especially liked the may real accounts of Lincoln and of Willie’s death. I also grew weary of the many ghosts and their stories and found myself skimming over some. I think this is a book that would be better on audio because it so closely resembles a stage production. Plus, the audio version has something like 150 people reading various parts and I think that would add a lot to the enjoyment. Your review is great, and it will definitely be hard to rate this book!

    • Taryn

      Thanks so much, Susie! I’m really glad to find someone who feels similarly! I felt the entire range of stars on this one. I have a hard time rating anything highly when I feel the frequent urge to skim. There were some pages I reread several times and I still couldn’t get a good grasp on them. You make a good point about the audio. It would’ve been nice to hear all those distinct voices–although I think the reading of the sources in the historical chapters would irritate me!

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