In a book peopled by many ghosts and few living people George Saunders writes a thoughtful book that reminds me of one of those black and white photographs with only one spot of color. Perhaps a splash of bright red or saffron yellow.
Abe Lincoln (and Mary Todd Lincoln) lost their son Willie Lincoln in 1862, probably from typhoid fever. Willie was eleven. The Lincoln’s had planned a grand party to show off the new White House décor. No expense was spared and hundreds of important people had been invited. In such a situation, do you go ahead and have the party with your little son so sick upstairs? If you are the President you must and you do, even though you know some people will think you made the wrong choice. Given that the Civil War had already begun, people’s reactions to the party were bound to be emotional even if guests did not know about the illness of Lincoln’s son.
Thus begins Lincoln in the Bardo, the first full length novel by George Saunders. On the night of the party we are introduced to one of the unusual literary devices used in this amazing book, a book that breaks new ground for fiction. The author begins quoting from some of the many Lincoln books. Each quote describes the sky on the night of the party. The descriptions are not at all consistent. Some describe a clear night with a brilliant moon. Others say the night sky was cloudy and there was no moon. Some actually recall that it was a stormy night.
The narrator uses actual quotes and avoids footnotes by telling the source, title and author as part of the story. If an author is quoted again, we get a name and an “op cit”. There are a lot of “op cit-s” in this novel, adding a sense of authenticity. You might worry that this would be deadly as a device in a novel, but somehow it isn’t, and that is part of the genius of this unusual book.
Willie Lincoln, history tells us, does not recover. He dies so young. His father is distraught.
But what is “the Bardo”? The internet tells me that in some forms of Buddhism this describes an existence between life and death. Saunders puts quite a Christian spin on this, almost like purgatory. Once Willie is laid to rest in a crypt at the cemetery his little body/soul comes forth to join the many other souls who are clinging to what they know (as much as the sort of half-life in that place bears any similarity to real life) because their human failings make them afraid to “go on”.
The Bardo is full of souls, of all classes, and all genders, all ages, and many professions. Many alliances are formed in the Bardo. Three souls in particular are our guides to the Bardo in this particular cemetery. But there are no children here. Children usually “go on” right away. However, Lincoln and Willie are so fond of each other that Willie cannot bring himself to go, and Lincoln cannot bring himself to let go.
Do souls in limbo have feelings? Is there still some sense of good and bad in the Bardo? The shades are genuinely worried about the fact that Willie is staying for his father’s sake. Bad things happen to children who stay in the Bardo. What duty do the shades take on and how does that work out? The reader gets to think long and hard about the nature of death and the after effects of decisions we make in our lives, although the denizens of the Bardo never use any words that might make death seem real. We also get to think about what might have happened if Lincoln had given in to his grief and had been unable to govern well in the critical situation of that moment in time.
I listened to the book on Audible, read by an enormous cast of some pretty well known people. This made the Bardo “come alive”. (Sorry for the double meaning.) I have to caution that not everyone in the Bardo is “quite the thing” so some of the language and the deeds get too inappropriate for children, the folks at the gym, or the neighbors to hear, especially out of context. Headphones might be a good option.
This is a unique book offering several more breaks from “life” in the Bardo to quote from the abundant Lincoln literature with plenty of “op cit-s”. If you sometimes give up on fiction because it seems there may be no new stories to tell or no new ways to tell stories, George Saunders’ book Lincoln in the Bardo will make you question that notion. Saunders book is poignant and profound; thoughtful and thought-provoking.
This site gives a list of characters and also a list of the cast on the Audible version of this book.