George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo” – book review

I finished reading the winner of the Man Booker Prize of 2017, the day before the Booker for 2018 was announced. Then I procrastinated with writing the review. But at least the timing works rather nicely, as a book review of Lincoln in the Bardo is really rather well suited for Halloween in my opinion. I don’t like scary stories or horror stories. This isn’t one. It’s just the story of ghosts in a cemetery. So, it’s as close to Halloween, as it gets, right?

Before I start the review properly, I should probably explain the title of the book, as I’ve had it explained to me before I read it – and you might have just missed the flurry of reviews that appeared after the publication of the book.

The surname “Lincoln” in the title refers to both the President and his son Willie, who died aged eleven in February 1862.

The bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist concept: “when someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body.”

The Guardian 

George Saunders constructs his book around the concept of the bardo: a place where souls too attached to the earthly life linger. The reader’s guides to this strange world are:

  • Reverend Everly Thomas who died of old age, but is terrified he will be found wanting in God’s judgment,
  • Roger Bevins, a young gay man who committed suicide after his lover rejected him, but regretted his decision in his dying moments, and
  • Hans Vollman who died the day before he was supposed to consummate his marriage.

The action of the novel is mostly presented through dialogue between these characters, and this device works surprisingly well. All the narrators are concerned about the fate of Willie Lincoln, who died age 11. A young boy should not linger too long in the bardo, as there is a horrible punishment for children who linger there. But the boy says his father promised to visit him at the cemetery and insists on waiting… the other ghosts struggle to dissuade him.

Another interesting narrative technique is Saunders’s masterful and playful synthesis between various historical sources: Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, and Margaret Garret’s All This Did I See: Memories of a Terrible Time, among others. Sentence by sentence, Saunders unifies and contrasts the different eyewitness accounts to get at the “truth” of a given historical event.

A particularly magnificent passage contrast the differences between the various eyewitness accounts of a party at the President’s House:

“There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds” Wickett, op.cit.

“A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge” In “My Life,” by Dolores P. Leventrop

“The full moon that night was yellow red” Sloane, op. cit

 

The moon not only changes colours between those eyewitness accounts: it also changes phase, or even disappears completely.  The intense subjectivity of human experience is something that Saunders is deeply interested in. The personal invades even those events which we are used to thinking of with historical detachment. Our “objectivity” tends to be enforced by the third person narratives of history textbooks, which do not take into account the emotions of the people who were affected by these historical events.

As much as Lincoln in the Bardo is about subjectivity, it is also about grief, responsibility and the obligation to do the best of the time that is given to us.

It is a story about ghosts, but it is also a great affirmation of life.

 

 

P.S. Perhaps the Halloween association in my head only appeared because the only book I can think of as being vaguely similar to Lincoln in the Bardo is Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) Part II. Unless you’re Polish, you probably haven’t heard of it. It’s a 19th-century Romantic drama in which ghosts explain why they have been made to wander in the world (a sort of limbo or bardo, if you like). The action takes place on All Hallow’s Eve. I hope someone who is vaguely academic will write an interesting essay comparing the concepts of limbo in those two books…

 

 

 

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