Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


I must begin by saying this is the best book I will read this year. 

The book is a mixture of historical fact and fanciful fiction. The event at its core is the death of Lincoln's son Willie at age 11 in 1862; this tragedy for the Lincolns makes it a tough read for parents of young children. The method used to convey the historical facts is unique in my experience as a reader. Those chapters are made up of short quotes, many of which are taken from contemporary accounts. One source is "Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House" by Elizabeth Keckley. On a different note is Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." The accounts sometimes conflict with each other, illustrating what wretched observers humans can be. Willie died the night of a rare social event in the White House. In recounting the events of that evening, some recalled the beautiful moon and some declared there was no moon that night. 

Part of the accepted historical record was that in his anguish Lincoln removed his son's casket from the crypt and held him in his arms. The fictional part of the story is told by the beings who reside in the cemetery, chiefly three characters. There is Hans Vollman, a 40-something printer who died in an accident whose story makes him a very appealing character; Roger Bevins, III, a young man who killed himself because he was gay; and the kindly and upright Reverend Everly Thomas. All the cemetery residents, including young Willie are "in the Bardo," the transitional state in Tibetan Buddhism between the end of one life and the beginning of the next. The transition can be terrifying and a never-ending horror for those who die as children. This gives our three story-tellers great concern about Willie. They try to convince him to take actions to make the transition quickly and to influence Lincoln to let Willie go.

The persona and interactions of the three main characters and others in the cemetery manage to be light-hearted and sometimes funny. It's apparent from the outset that they don't accept what has happened to them as they refer to their coffins as "sick-boxes" and Hans Vollman only sees that his plans would be "indefinitely delayed." One night they recount their experience of Mr. Manders, the nightwatchman:

Who approached looking as he always looks when among us:  timorous, somewhat bemused by his own timorousness, eager to return to the guardhouse.–the reverend everly thomas

We were fond of Manders, who kept his courage up on these rounds by calling out to us congenially, assuring us that things "out there" were as they had been; i.e., eating, loving, brawling, births, binges, grudges, all still proceeded apace. Some nights he would mention his children. –roger bevins iii

After Lincoln held his son, the cemetery community was greatly affected and many never seen before "stood shyly wringing their hands in delighted incredulity. Although many "from that other place" came to visit, it was the touching that was rare. 

One part of their efforts to move Willie to a transition involved "inhabiting" Lincoln and concentrating their thoughts to convince him to take a particular action. Ultimately Willie departed and Lincoln was set free from that place. He realized his boy was gone: "His boy was nowhere; his boy was everywhere." And then in the voice of Hans Vollman the author tells us

His [Lincoln's] mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all…

George Saunders' unique storytelling method makes this an intense experience. A collection of historical notes and conversations among cemetery dwellers seems unlikely to succeed, but for me both work harmoniously together.

June Update. Last night we watched The Sixth Sense, in which the child psychologist Bruce Willis works with a child who famously says, "I see dead people." With Bruce's help, the child goes from being terrified and hurt by them to listening to them, and occasionally bringing them comfort. He explains to Bruce that they only see what they want to see. And the big shock in the end is that Bruce, too, is dead, which explains why he and his wife are not connecting well any more. This clarifies the beginning scene where a former patient breaks into their house and, it turns out, kills Bruce. The child tells Bruce to talk to his wife while she's asleep. He does and thus learns he is dead and feels released as he has done what he needed to do, that is, help the child.  I was struck by the parallels with the Saunders' story and realized it may be a case of my ignorance of the genre.

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 2017, 343 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries.

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