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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 14, 2017
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That said, I think "Lincoln in the Bardo" would work even better as a stage play, somewhat reminiscent of "Our Town", and in this sense I think an audio recording of the novel, if done well, might be the best way to experience this work.
Bardo is a Tibetan word for the "in-between" or "transitional" state between lives (thank you, Wikipedia). The novel takes place in one night in a cemetery and the story is narrated by hundreds of voices: old and young, men, women, and children, white and black, salve and free. These denizens of Saunders' novel are in a place between life and death. We are told that people stay in this gray area for varying periods of time and that children usually stay there a very short time (this is where it also sounded a lot like Purgatory to me). Do these "beings" know that they are actually dead? They use words like "sick box" for coffin, and "sick-form" for body, "white stone home" for mausoleum, so they seem to be unclear as to their actual state. Through these voices Saunders creates as fascinating (and chilling) a version of the after-life as Dante Alighieri gave us. (There is a particularly interesting and notable discussion among them about free will in the latter part of the novel.)
The basic plot is fictionalized history: Willie, Abraham Lincoln's young son, has died and he is now in the Bardo. Here we meet the many fascinating - and funny! characters who show Willie around, who witness the unusual sight of Lincoln cradling the body of his young son, and who endeavor to help both father and son to find peace. That's as far as I will go with the "plot" of this novel.
One of my favorite things about this unique novel, was how Saunders presented conflicting "news reports". For example, when reporting on the White House gala reception the night Willie is dying, some "witnesses" said there was a full moon, some said there was no moon, some said it was green, some red, others said it was just a sliver. This serves to remind us that recorded history is just as unreliable as our current news reporting. What is the truth? Do we ever know? For the purpose of "Lincoln in the Bardo", we only need to know that the Lincolns did lose their beloved son Willie in early 1862, all else is brilliantly imagined and "reported" by Saunders.
Ultimately "Lincoln in the Bardo" is a riveting exploration of death, grief, and love told in an utterly unique, almost poetic, fashion.
Much anticipated is the phrase you’ll probably hear most. What that should tell you is that Saunders has a strong fan base. He truly does, and full disclosure here, I’ve counted myself among them for a few years now. His mastery of the short story is well known, with the use of quirky characters, odd theme parks, and surreal science fiction-y, angst inducing situations known to take you to dark, uncomfortable places but that still manage to find and nourish a spark of humanistic hope. Perhaps the most common feeling among his readers as they’ve enjoyed these works is “man, I wish this guy would write a novel!” He has, and in true Saunders fashion, he’s ensured that very little about the experience is “normal”.
I’m not going to regurgitate plot here, plenty of better reviews have already done you that favor. What I do want to make sure to express is the feel of the structure and the experience, perhaps in terms of other things you’ve read and seen. The most common comparison I’ve read is Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology”. The comparison is apt, there are similarities, mainly in that the dead speak to us of their pasts and especially of their mistakes. But Masters’ dead are much less playful and rarely attempt humor while Saunders’ cast of spirits deliver several laugh out loud moments as they guide readers through the tale. I thought often of Twain as I read.
Another comparison that came to mind several times was Dante’s Inferno. Though instead of a proper hell, we are treated to a description of a Bardo, a purgatory where spirits have remained in between their death and their final destination. Each held up for reasons of their own personal obsessions, several of which are brilliantly and humorously described throughout the novel. Others are devastatingly sad yet delivered equally as powerfully. The reader increasingly learns about the rules and behaviors of that Bardo through these snippets of stories.
This is probably a good time to talk about structure. It’s quite different and again, I’d expect no less from Saunders. Picture a Greek chorus, a paragraph or two of dialog (rarely more) with an attribution after each. It is startling at first and again, will be especially so to readers less familiar with modern and post-modern lit. And so it is this difference that will probably be the biggest complaint as the reviews begin to pile up here. My advice? Hang in there, it works and it works quite well. In fact, you’ll not only get used to it, you’ll learn to love it.
More comparisons now. Lincoln, the titular and in some ways central (though in many ways not) character expresses the most powerful dialog and I often thought of Shakespeare when Lincoln spoke. These are beautiful and profound moments, by far the novel’s most powerful as he reflects on the death of his son Willie. You don’t have to be a parent to feel the impact of his dialog, but it sure didn’t hurt, and I personally haven’t read such raw, sincere and painful cogitation on death and mourning since I read Twain’s “The Death of Jean”. Readers of Paul Hardings’ Enon have also tasted of similar parental agony. In any case, it is through Lincoln’s character that the deepest waters flow.
One other comparative thought, especially if you’re hearing all the publicity and thinking of picking up this novel for grandma who loves to read. It’ll also bring to mind at various times Beavis and Butthead, or maybe Hank and Bobby Hill. I don’t mean that as a negative, I really don’t. But I do understand that this is something about Saunders that people either love or hate. At one moment Lincoln may wax eloquent on the spark of life and in the next, you may be reminded for the tenth time or more that one of the spirits has a massive erection. These moments bring me joy and laughter, but I do comprehend that for some others they don’t carry the proper dignity of their normal read. If you are one such, Saunders may not be for you.
Most importantly, I’d implore all readers to keep an open mind. If you’re a Saunders fan, you’re going to be strengthened in that fandom. If you’re new to Saunders, but enjoy alternative structures and have a history of adventurous reading, I’m confident you’ll soon count yourself a soldier in his army. However, if you’re one whose reading tends toward the traditional, conservative in structure and clear in its identity, then Lincoln in the Bardo’s narrative structure and its moments of revelry may at first feel like nails on a chalkboard to you. Please, fight through it. The novel's main points could yet become for you sweet susurrations of humanistic glory that leave you wet eyed and wondering where Mr. Saunders has been all your life.