There’s been a lot of talk about Lincoln in the Bardo over the past 18 months or so. It won a lot of awards, for sure. I finally got it from the library and I read it.
And I have no idea, honestly, if I liked it or not. I did?
There’s a lot going on here. Abraham Lincoln’s youngest son, Willie, has died and been laid to rest in a cemetery in Georgetown. Lincoln is mad with grief and spends the better part of the night after the funeral sitting in the cemetery, mourning his son.
Meanwhile, Willie’s spirit is stuck in a sort of purgatory, right in the very tomb where his body is at rest. The cemetery is filled with these spirits, many of whom tell their tales and attempt to help Willie get back to his father and his life. None of these spirits accept the simple fact that they are dead, and that’s pretty much the only reason they are stuck in this place. Occasionally, a spirit that they know will disappear suddenly, and we know that’s because that spirit has finally faced the truth.
I’ll admit that it wasn’t until I finished the book that I actually wondered what the definition of “Bardo” was. I ignorantly thought it was the name of the tomb or the cemetery. But I was very wrong. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of Bardo is as follows:
- (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.
OK. So. I wish I had known that going in. My bad.
Anyhoo, here’s the gist of the story. The historical parts about Lincoln, his presidency, and the illness and death of his son are told by citing actual writings (letters, interviews, biographies, etc). The bits in the “Bardo” are told with many narrators, all spirits, who are shocked at the actions of Lincoln, as no other human has ever spent more time than absolutely necessary in their little world.
It absolutely takes a while to figure out how to read this book. Its amazingly original, but a little tough to follow at times. (And I hear that the audio book is great, but really confusing if you don’t know the story. There are hundreds of narrators here.)
I appreciate what George Saunders did here, and some of it made me want to read more about Lincoln and the early parts of the Civil War and his presidency. I had no idea that he was disliked to such an extent, and some of the citations made me think of our current leader. For instance:
The people have, for nineteen months, poured out, at your call, sons, brothers, husbands & money.–What is the result?–Do you ever realize that the desolation, sorrow, grief that pervades this country is owing to you?–that the young men who have been maimed, crippled, murdered, & made invalids for lie, owe it to your weakness, irresolution, & want of moral courage?
You have seized the reins, made yourself dictator, established a monolithic new form of government which must dominate over the rights of the individual. Your reign presages a terrible time when all of our liberties shall be lost in favor of the rights of the monolith. The founders look on in dismay.
If Abe Lincoln should be re-elected for another term of four years of such wretched administration, we hope that a bold hand will be found to plunge the dagger into the tyrant’s heart for the public welfare.
That’s a lot to deal with for good old Honest Abe, I’d say. And I guess he really turned things around for himself, as far as public opinion goes.
The history was certainly interesting. I had no idea that Lincoln’s children had met such tragic ends, and the background here really hit me as a parent. I felt sorry that he was scrutinized as a parent and more or less blamed for Willie’s death because of his easy-going parenting style, similar to pretty much any parent on social media today!
The bits in the Bardo were a bit tougher for me. They were certainly well written and some of the narrators back stories were heartbreaking. But I just didn’t like this part as much as the historical part. It simply didn’t speak to me most of the time.
But there were definitely some parts that did. Near the end, when some of the spirits realize exactly where they are and why they haven’t moved on to the afterlife, one of the main narrators realizes exactly what’s happening to him, and the writing was simply beautiful.
There was nothing left for me to do, but go.
Though the things of the world were strong with me still.
Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-titled streetlight; a frozen clock, a bird visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; towering off one’s clinging shirt post-June rain.
Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth.
Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.
A bloody ross death-red on a platter; a headgetop under-hand as you flee late to some chalk-and-woodfire-smelling schoolhouse.
Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded.
The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars; the sore place on the shoulder a resting toboggan makes; writing one’s beloved’s name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger.
Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.
Goodbye, I must now say goodbye to all of it.
Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck-rub in the parlour; milk-sip at end of day.
Some brandy-legged dog proudly back-ploughs the grass to cover its modest shit; a cloud-mass down-valley breaks apart over the course of a brandy-deepened hour; louvered blinds yield dusty beneath your dragging finger, and it is nearly noon and you must decide; you have seen what you have seen, and it has wounded you, and it seems you have only one choice left.
Blood-stained porcelain bowl wobbles face down on wood floor; orange peel not at all stirred by disbelieving last breath there among that fine summer dust-layer, fatal knife set down in pass-panic on familiar wobbly banister, later dropped (thrown) by Mother (dear Mother) (heartsick) into the slow-flowing, chocolate-brown Potomac.
None of it was real; nothing was real.
Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and in this way, brought them forth.
And now we must lose them.
I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant.
Goodbye goodbye good-
Simple observations of what its like to live a life. Unsure of what will happen to him next, as he prepares himself to move on from the Bardo, he remembered the little things that he could from his mortal existence, the things that made him human.
I’m glad I read this, but am not sure I would recommend it to everyone. If you know what you’re in for, its a worthwhile read. But it isn’t a straightforward piece of fiction. You really have to work for it.