Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book 182: Lincoln In The Bardo

"A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured.
It costs you nothing. 
Why not try?"

Dates read: October 15-17, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

As much as it's inextricably woven into our lives, sometimes I wonder what the world would be like right now if there was no social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Want to share baby photos with friends back home? You'd have to text, or email, or even just hard copy mail them. Advertising would still just be on TV, or in our mailboxes or magazines, or at the top of websites. I'm sure we'd still get those chain forwards from that one aunt, the ones that told you if you didn't forward this on to twelve people by midnight you'd never find love, or that there was a clear image of the devil in the smoke over the Twin Towers on 9/11, or those kind of things. But the ability to share low-quality information widely and quickly would be much diminished.

One area I think it would make a real difference would be in political news coverage. It's easier to cast a gauzy glow over figures that never faced the kind of constant examination that politicians today face. There was a lot of stuff going on in the White Houses of yore that even if it was known, wasn't published and dissected and scrutinized the way things are now. Like, for example, when Abraham Lincoln's 11 year-old son, Willie, died while he was in office during the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln had a breakdown, and Lincoln himself didn't cope well either. He went to the vault where his son's body was, at least once, and picked him up and held him. It was a demonstration of terrible, profound grief, and if it happened today can you imagine the tweets?

It is this situation, the heartbroken Lincoln going to see his dead son, that inspired lauded short-story writer George Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The bardo is based on the Tibetan concept of a liminal state between life and death, fairly similar to the Catholic purgatory but without the connotations of having done something "wrong", and the Lincoln in question is not Abraham but Willie himself. It is his soul that comes to the bardo, where he encounters other spirits, those who have elected to stay. They don't believe themselves quite dead...they refer to their coffins as "sick-boxes" and are sure that they'll soon recover and get back to their lives as they knew them. But they all know that children aren't supposed to linger, they're supposed to move on. And Willie is more or less ready to do so when his father appears, to hold him and talk to him, and promises to come back. So now Willie, too, wants to stay.

There are three main ghosts/spirits/souls that take on the task of trying to figure out how to inspire Willie to move on: Hans, Roger, and Everly. Hans was an older shopkeeper who remarried after the death of his first wife. He waited to consumate his second marriage until his young and lovely bride was comfortable, and after months, she's finally ready to do so...and then Hans is struck violently in the head by a wayward beam. Roger was a young gay man who managed to find love in a time when that was difficult...only to get dumped and slit his wrists in despair. As he bled, he realized how beautiful the world was and how much he wanted to live. And then there's Everly, a former reverend who lived righteously but is too afraid of heavenly judgment to go. They try everything, including communing with the President, to get Willie going where he needs to go.

This is a very odd novel. It's mostly structured like a play...dialogue is followed by a notation of the speaker's name. Then there are occasional sections where Saunders excerpts nonfiction historical sources to describe various aspects of the situation at hand: the party the Lincolns hosted at the White House the night Willie lay dying, what Lincoln actually looked like, what Willie was like, the day of the funeral. There's no traditional "narrative" at all. I'll admit that this made it a bit of a struggle to get into...I don't usually especially enjoy reading plays, and there's not a lot of information provided about what's going on and who the various characters are right off the bat. But my reluctance to put down books before I've finished them paid off here, because once I got into the flow of it, I found the back half quite strong and the ending unexpectedly powerful.

I've never read any of Saunders' short stories, but I'm excited to do so in the future because the sheer inventiveness of this novel is delightful. As someone who loves The Divine Comedy, I enjoyed his take on Dante's technique of contrapasso, giving the spirits physical manifestations matching the reason they won't leave the bardo. Although it won the Booker Prize for its release year (which was awarded the day after I finished reading it!), this is a novel destined to be divisive and one that I'd therefore hesitate recommending widely even though I personally enjoyed it. If you're looking for a straightforward form or narrative, or something more traditionally "historical fiction", this isn't for you. But if you're interested in a more unusual reading experience that challenges you to read in a different way, I'd encourage you to at least give it a try!

One year ago, I was reading: How to Love Wine

Two years ago, I was reading: Migraine

Three years ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City


  1. Another great review! I read this a couple of years ago and loved it, but like you I hesitate to recommend it because it is so unusual (weird).

    1. Thanks! Yeah, this one is really hard to tell whether someone would like it or not so I don't often recommend it either