Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Random House, New York, 2017
Well, this novel has an endorsement from Thomas Pynchon on the jacket. Given that, I’m sure that the world is panting in anticipation of my review.
Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over a single night as President Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young, much loved (even favored) son, Willie. The story is a wild ride through the supernatural and paranormal – like a complex bottle of wine it has strong notes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Walpurgisnacht” from Goethe’s Faust, Wilder’s Our Town, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a hint of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (the ride at Disneyland. Can’t vouch for the movie).
The concept of Bardo is Tibetan and refers to a state of existence between one’s initial earthly life and a rebirth to new life. It has affinities with Catholic ideas of Limbo and/or Purgatory.
In the cemetery where the emotionally crushed President has come to be near his son’s recently interred body, an array of the dead and buried (who have not come to terms with the fact that they’re dead and buried) spend the night in their active, interim state. Three are the primary narrators and protagonists in the goings-on; many others appear.
The brilliant subtlety of the book is the interplay of spiritual bondage with the historic reality of “The Great Emancipator,” who is bound up in personal grief and the overwhelming national crisis.
All of the denizens of the cemetery are bound – bound by their lack of insight into the fact that they’re dead (back to my bottle-of-wine simile; here’s a taste of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave); bound to whatever dominated them at the moment of death (they manifest with physical exaggerations, such as one character who lived so much through his sensual appreciation of the world that he appears as a living mass of eyes and hands); bound by past excesses requiring acts of atonement; bound by the iron fence of the cemetery and by the arrival of daylight; bound up in the ultimate illusion that continuing fruitless old habits will result in a hoped for outcome.
Lincoln and Willie are arresting figures who break through the binding boredom of the Bardo. The cemetery residents are as taken with the Lincolns as is the divided nation. Coming first to gawk at them as a diversion from the nightly routines, the spirits are moved by the Lincolns, and, to the very limited extent that they are able, move them.
This sets the stage for a wild matrix of possible liberations. Can the spirits accept the feared burst of light that hearkens a new existence? Can Abraham and Willie Lincoln, if only for a moment, reach some kind of peace across the separation of death? Can the nation out in the dark beyond the cemetery emancipate those it oppresses and free itself from its devouring battlefields?
The book unfolds almost as a play, with the narration carried by succeeding character voices, and scenes set by historical quotes from Lincoln contemporaries and subsequent historians’ works. Saunders’ distilled breadth of reading on Lincoln and the culture of the times is a treasure within the other riches of this novel.
Saunders does a masterful job of leaving open the spiritual questions while engaging them with refreshing respect. A key Christian character must grapple with the fearful mystery of a sovereign God, yet never doubts the tenets of the faith and… well, I need to stay away from a big spoiler on this. I’ll just say that while this is not a Christian novel, a Christian operating as a Christian has an honorable impact upon what unfolds, and what unfolds honors his faith.
This is a great novel on so many levels, including imagination, history, spirituality, engaging characters (even the plethora of minor ones who show up), emotional punch (I was reading it in the break room at work and had to hide that I was weeping at one point) and wit.
Once you follow Lincoln into the Bardo, you’ll be hard put to do anything but keep reading.