I started reading Lincoln in the Bardo the day after it won the Man Booker Prize. I’d only just finished Ali Smith’s Autumn, also shortlisted for the Booker, but my long-term prediction had been, without having read the book, that Lincoln in the Bardo would win, based on nothing more than impressions I had gained from reviews and talk I had heard. Lincoln in the Bardo was a new form of writing I had heard and the book was powerful. I figured the Booker judges would likely reward that kind of feeling.
The story is simple. Most reviews describe the action as taking place over the course of a night, although the book does outline several days prior to the fateful night, and its ending has a sense of projecting into the future. However, the story focusses mainly around the night in which President Lincoln, grief stricken at the loss of his son, Willie, enters the graveyard in which he is interred, and removes his body to look upon it a last time. Unknown to him, the graveyard is populated by many dead spirits, some who have been there for many decades, who watch the president and feel his grief by melding their incorporeal forms with his body. Layering this emotionally charged situation is the fact that the spirits who inhabit the graveyard do not realise, or have denied the fact to themselves, that they are dead. The is what the
bardo of the book title refers to. Saunders, a Buddhist, draws the idea from the Tibetan tradition, that the bardo is a place or state in which one is dead but has not yet moved on to one’s next form: an in-between place. The spirits of the graveyard know they are not as they used to be, remember even, the event that brought them to this place, but their talk of their own deaths is laden with euphemism. Their bodies do not lie in coffins, but
sick boxes, and they perceive that they are only sick and will one day recover. This is direct contradiction to the reality they experience often, of those spirits who give up the fight to remain on the corporeal plain, and disappear dramatically in the
matterlightblooming phenomenon that marks their moving on.
This is a novel about grief and rage. Lincoln’s grief for his dead son is naturally overwhelming. But so many of the characters are tormented in one way or another. Roger Bevins III, one of three main spirits in the narrative, committed suicide due to the torments of his homosexuality. The Reverend Everly Thomas is tormented by the fact that he thought he lived a moral life, but when he came to the moment of judgment, he was offered a place in hell instead of heaven, and fled back to the bardo. There are other stories, too, like the young girl Litzie Wright, muted by the horror of repeated rapes, and Elson Farwell, a black man enraged not only at his treatment by whites, but that he adopted the diction and learning of white society.
The book has its moments of levity, too. We hear how many of the characters died and in much the same way that Wendy Northcutt’s Darwin Awards can be an amusing reading, these can offer up some amusing moments in Saunders’s novel, too. One of the main characters, Hans Vollman, for instance, died on his wedding night, naked, with a massive erection, when a beam drops on him. He wanders the bardo in the same state, which naturally has scope for comic moments.
But as much as the book is about grief or anger, the book is, more importantly, about empathy. Lincoln lost his son as the Civil War was still tearing America apart, and Saunders’s story engineers moments when empathy and understanding are possible. The spirits’ ability to enter Lincoln en masse affords them insights into Lincoln’s mind, as well as the feelings and experiences of all the other spirits of the bardo. This effects profound insights both for Lincoln and the spirits and offers perspectives on race and the war.
Much of the talk about this book has been about the form in which it is written. The book begins as a conventional first-person narrative in the voice of Lincoln, but the voice of the two main spirits, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, soon interrupts the narrative. There is no explanation for this and the intrusion is initially jarring. I’ve heard some reviewers say that you have to learn to read the book, but I think this is a bit exaggerated. Saunders, in my opinion, hasn’t really invented a new form, but has used other forms in ways unusual for fiction. There are two major elements to the novel. There is the narrative of the bardo, which reads something like a radio play, and there is the narrative of the living world, formed by real and fabricated primary evidence from the period, quoted from many sources that, together, form the story of Lincoln’s household and the period leading up to and after Willie’s death. Any student of history would be familiar with piecing together an historical narrative using evidence like this.
And Saunders uses the problems often encountered with historical evidence to give his narrative a human and unreliable aspect. He does this early in the novel in a simple discussion about the moon, which is referred to by his
historical sources much as any author employing pathetic fallacy might, to suggest a wider significance to the death of Willie. The moon is variously described as being a
beautiful moon that shone all evening, a
golden moon, as having been not visible due to clouds, a
fat green crescent, a
full moon that was yellow-red, a
silver wedge of a moon, and having not been present at all. Through such a simple motif, Saunders suggests not only the complex emotional reaction to Willie’s death, but the polyphonic tone the book will adopt.
Given the talk about the book’s new form – which could be difficult to get into, at first, I was told – I decided to do something I haven’t done before. I bought the Bolinda audiobook edition to accompany my reading of it. Since I read the book this way, often wearing headphones that allowed me to block out the sound of my son’s computer battles on the Playstation delivered in surround sound, I figured that a brief discussion of the audio book was also relevant in this review.
The audiobook is excellent. It boasts a 166-person cast, reading the many voices that form the narrative of the book. Some of the readers are famous actors like Susan Sarandon, reading Mrs Abigail Blass, Ben Stiller as Jack Manders and Julienne Moore as Jane Ellis. There is also David Sedaris, the author, who reads one of the two main spirits, Roger Bevins III, along with George Saunders, himself, who reads the part of the Reverend Everly Thomas. I thought all the readers imbued their readings with effective characterisations – I knew who these people were, knew their anger, their grief, and had a sense of their social position prior to their death – and given that I felt the form of the book owed something to radio plays, this added to the enjoyment of the book. Subtle atmospheric effects are also used to suggest the other world of the graveyard. Reading along with the audiobook is not needed, but I found that listening to the distinct voices was a great way to bring the book to life. I would recommend to anyone who can get hold of a copy of the audiobook to use it while reading the written text.
Apart from that, Lincoln in the Bardo is a powerful book which required a little (but not much) patience to get into. This night in American history, when Lincoln went to the crypt to nurse his dead son, offers Saunders an artistic opportunity to explore not only personal grief and all the attendant emotions at play on this night, but to imaginatively explore the moral weight of slavery and war on a nation that is still blighted by their shadows.
This is an unusual book, one that it is hard to give any plot summary for that doesn't just repeat the blurb on the back of the book. It is early in the American Civil War. Lincoln's young son, Willie, has died of typhoid and is buried in a crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. Lincoln is grieving for his son, and visits the cemetery on the night of the funeral to hold his son's body again. Over the course of the night we stay in the cemetery with Willie, Lincoln and the many ghosts who remain in the place.
We move between that night in the cemetery, with the stories of the ghosts, and excerpts from books about Lincoln, some contemporary, others written later (and since this is a novel, possibly all made up by Saunders). We learn, through both the excerpts and through further arrivals at the cemetery, that a recent battle in the war has left more than 1,000 soldiers dead on both sides, with a further 3,000 wounded. Lincoln's personal grief adds to the general despair he is already feeling at tearing the country apart and causing so much death and pain.
When Willie first arrives in the bardo, he meets the main narrators of the story, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. Once Vollman and Bevins realise Willie is a child, they expect he will soon leave, as children do not stay in this place. When he doesn't leave quickly, they start to urge him to go, before he is trapped. But Lincoln unexpectedly arrives at the crypt and Willie stays for his father. Lincoln takes comfort from being with his son's body, not realising that he is condemning his child to a tormented purgatory by keeping him in that place.
The style of the book took me a few chapters to get used to, but once I got into the flow of the writing style, it became an easy read, even with the huge number of voices to keep track of.
The contemporary excerpts, especially the ones condemning the war and Lincoln's administration, seem to become the doubts going through Lincoln's mind about the decisions he had made and whether the bloody war was worthy continuing. Throughout the book these various accounts differ greatly when describing the same thing, even on simple matters that should be fact, such as the size and colour of the moon on the night Willie died, the night of a State banquet at the White House. At first this sets up a feeling that no one's memory or recollection is reliable, and that people will base their account of what happened on their own feelings or beliefs. You take this feeling of unreliability with you into hearing the accounts from the various ghosts of their lives, especially when you realise that none of them acknowledge that they are dead. Later, when Lincoln is conflicted over whether he should continue the war, they become like demons in his mind condemning his actions and inability to quickly end the war and return people to their normal lives.
The ghosts who inhabit the cemetery each have their own reason for staying. Each of them keeps something from their previous life with them, either as a torment, such as the gelatinous orbs that float around Mrs Ellis, or an indicator of why they stayed, such as the strange appearance of Roger Bevins III, covered with numerous eyes and arms to fully embrace all the sensations on earth that he doesn't want to leave. They don't acknowledge that they are dead, and act as if they will soon return to the world they believe they have only recently left. Vollman and Bevins each accept that Lincoln is actually the President, but somehow can reconcile this acknowledgement with their own knowledge that someone else is the President but still think they will one day go back to their previous life. It seems like everyone in the bardo has something they need to accept or acknowledge before they can leave.
There is a beautiful scene near the end of the book where many of the ghosts come together for a short time, and in that brief instant stop focusing on why they have stayed in this place and instead remember what it was like to be alive, enjoying the company of others and the simple pleasures from their previous lives.
"What a pleasure. What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another's minds ... How good it felt, doing this together!
We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness."
The existence of the ghosts is solitary, driven by their need to tell and retell their story, and this brief time together frees them from their isolation and allows them to feel a connection and a belonging to each other.
We move from one man's personal grief to the griefs and struggles that every person goes through, griefs that are currently being shared by so many families across the nation as the war continues.
"The moon came out just now & lit the stones in the cemetery-for an instant it appeared the grounds had been overrun with angels of various shapes and sizes: fat angels, dog-sized angels, angels upon horseback, etc.
I have grown comfortable having these Dead for company, and find them agreeable companions, over there in their Soil & cold stone Houses"
Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Isabelle Perkins, compiled and edited by Nash Perkins III, entry of February 25, 1862