Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoBardo:: A Tibetan Buddhist term meaning ‘of an existence between death and rebirth’.

This novel is quite unconventional. Not quite as unconventional as the book called S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, but it does not, as a typical novel would, consist of nothing but prose.  The chapters are quite short, and many of them are made up entirely of quotes pulled from historical accounts, history books, and letters. It is almost more of a work of art than a novel. And Although it took me awhile to get the rhythm, in the end I rather enjoyed it.
I came to this book straight off of Gone With the Wind and wanting to stay in the time period of the civil war. While this story does technically take place during the civil war, it is nothing about it but a vague backdrop that almost has no meaning to the story being told. This book is about the death and mourning of a child, and also an interpretation of the afterlife.

I read this book on audible, and it is the first audiobook I’ve listened to with a full cast. For this novel it meant 166 narrators! I can’t move on from this subject without mentioning how odd the experience was at first listening to people reading sometimes only a few words before another person jumped in. It was a cacophony of human voices for awhile, but once I understood what was going on, I loved it. As you may have seen, Nick Offerman (of Parks & Rec fame) leads the cast, playing a dead man called Mr. Vollman. David Sedaris has another leading roll as Mr. Bevins, and together they narrate much of the story from their perspective as ghosts in a graveyard. I was able to pick out a few other voices I knew: Rainn Wilson and Megan Mullally among them, and in 166 voices, I’m sure you will find others you know as well.

The story itself is devastating; Lincoln’s young and beloved son Willie dies. Since this was an audiobook it is hard to go back and pull quotes, but I will just say that the chapters full of quotes were extremely powerful and put together very skillfully. As a new mother, I found new layers of meaning and understanding in the scraps of real world accounts surrounding this event and my heart ached for our 16th president. Not only was he dealing with this horrific personal event, but he was also facing enormous backlash because of the war, where thousands and thousands of other men’s sons were being slaughtered on his order. What a terrible burden it must have been. Again, I find I am intrigued to learn more about this era, and even Lincoln himself. Knowing that his life was prematurely ended not terribly long after this, it makes me feel so terrible for him. What a hard life he had. Poor man.

But this is all only backdrop for the novel. Mostly the story takes place in the graveyard Willie is taken to after his death. The ghosts there are unwilling to accept that they have died, and therefore linger on, resisting their fate by essentially squeezing their eyes shut and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit their faulty beliefs. When Willie’s spirit joins them, he is confused, and resists ‘passing on’ when his father comes back to the mausoleum to hold onto his dead son’s body (apparently a true event). Through the quest to get this child’s spirit to pass on (something they all agree should happen), the other ghosts become more aware of themselves and what the true situation of their existence is, eventually accepting their fate and moving on themselves.

Yes, those were all spoilers, and yet I feel like none of that will ruin the book for new readers. This is the kind of book you don’t necessarily read for the story, but for the experience itself. I hope you read it, you who are reading this, and that you can appreciate it for what it is. I loved this book, and it has stuck with me in the weeks since I’ve finished it. Maybe it will for you too.

E.