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Lincoln in the Bardo

March 23, 2017

I’m always sad when I have to say goodbye to one of my (adult) children, and the moment we left Eleanor at the Albuquerque airport was no exception. I stepped onto the plane, found my seat, and opened up the book she’d lent me to read on the way home, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Then I read it and wept, all the way to Chicago.

This is a sad, sad book. By now you probably know what it’s about, right? It’s about spirits who can’t go on, but linger on earth, in what Tibetans have traditionally called the “bardo.” I wondered if I would catch a whiff of necromancy, but mostly the smell is more like regret.

There’s a big cast of characters, so it took me a couple of chapters to understand what was going on, but after that it’s apparent why there are so many voices, and who they are. The scope of the commentary is one of the pleasures of the novel. I especially enjoyed (and Eleanor agreed with me when I mentioned this) the sections in which wildly conflicting contemporary accounts are given about whether the moon was full on a certain night in 1862, and what color Abraham Lincoln’s eyes might have been (hazel, green, gray, or blue, it seems).

Contemporary accounts of the death of Lincoln’s son Willie differ in the amount of blame they assign to his parents, for going ahead with the party they had planned on the night he died, but comments like this one, attributed to “Selected Civil War Letters of Edwine Willow,” are also included in the selection Saunders provides:
“The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.”
There is an ironic tone to the chapters in which these kinds of selections appear, provided by the juxtaposition of the various quotations. For example, several selections after the quotation above appear these two:
“Wild shrieks rang out.
Sloane, op. cit.
One fellow stood in perfect happiness, orange-trousered, blue coat flung open, feasting in-place as he stood at the serving table like some magnificent Ambrussi, finally found the home of his dreams.
Wickett, op. cit.”

The story, told by the spirits of those who do not seem to realize they are departed (referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and longing to finish actions they were unable to complete before dying) centers on the novelty of Lincoln’s visits to his son’s tomb, where Willie’s spirit sees him with his “mouth at the worm’s ear” and thinks “how I wished him to say it to me.” The “worm,” of course, is his own body.

The two main spirits that try to help Willie are reinvigorated by their purpose, even to the extent of realizing how much time has passed since their own deaths:
“I felt arising within me a body of startling new knowledge. The gentleman? Was Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was President. How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Taylor was President.
roger bevins iii
That Mr. Polk occupied that esteemed office.
hans vollman
….On the day of the beam, Polk had been President. But now, I knew (with a dazzling clarity) that Polk had been succeeded by Taylor, and Taylor by Fillmore, and Fillmore by Pierce—
hans vollman
After which, Pierce had been succeded by Buchanan, and Buchanan by—
roger bevins iii
Lincoln!
hans vollman”

The spirits of former slaves tell their terrible (and, by now, well-rehearsed) stories:
“One day, we were taken out of Washington, to the country, for the fireworks. Falling ill, I stumbled upon the trail, and could not get up, and the sun burning down brightly, how I writhed upon the—
Oh.
elson farwell
How you ‘writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came.’
betsy baron
How I writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came. Until finally, the youngest East child, Reginald, passed, and inquired, Elson, are you ill? And I said that I was, very much so. And he said he would send someone back for me at once.
But no one came. Mr. East did not come, Mrs. East did not come, none of the other East children came, not even Mr. Chasterly, our brutal smirking overseer, ever came.
I believe Reginald may have, in all the excitement about the fireworks, forgotten.
Forgotten about me.
Who had known him since his birth.
And lying there it—
Drat.
elson farwell
Lying there it occurred to you ‘with the force of revelation.’
eddie baron
Lying there it occurred to me with the force of revelation, that I (Elson Farwell, best boy, fondest son of my mother) had been sorely tricked, and (colorful rockets now bursting overhead, into such shapes as Old Glory, and a walking chicken, and a green-gold Comet, as if to celebrate the Joke being played upon me, each new explosion eliciting fresh cries of delight from those fat, spoiled East children) I regretted every moment of conciliation and smiling and convivial waiting, and longed with all my heart (there in the dappled tree-moonshade, that, in my final moments, became allshade) that my health might be restored to me, if just for one hour, so that I might correct my grand error, and enstrip myself of all cowering and false-talk and preening diction, and rise up even yet and stride back to those always-happy Easts and club and knife and rend and destroy them and tear down that tent and burn down that house, and thus secure for myself—
Oh.
elson farwell
‘A certain modicum of humanity, for only a beast—‘
betsy baron
A certain modicum of humanity, yes, for only a beast would endure what I had endured without objection; and not even a beast would conspire to put on the manners of its masters and hope thereby to be rewarded.
But it was too late.
It is too late.”

There is a moment when Lincoln, the desperate father, wishes to perform an act of necromancy:
“Mr. Lincoln tried to get the sick-form to rise. By making his mind quiet and then opening it up to whatever might exist that he did not know about that might be able to let the (make the) sick-form rise.
Feeling foolish, not truly believing such a thing was even—
Still, it is a vast world and anything might happen.
He stared down at the sick-form, at one finger upon one hand, waiting for the slightest—
Please please please.
But no.
That is superstition.
Will not do.
And yet, of course, readers feel the impetus, his desperate wish, the wrongness of what he wishes for and the depth of sadness that impels it.

The spirits, in the course of their efforts to help Willie–which are not untinged by the interest of bystanders at a disaster—actually go into Lincoln, connecting them briefly to life again and connecting him to their longings to have their lives back again:
“He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And—by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him. He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness.”

At the end of the story, most of the spirits are finally departing this world, although not without leaving readers with their fondness for the everyday details they will miss, and that we should notice:
“Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck-rub in the parlor; milk-sip at end of day.”

Beautiful in its sadness, this is a novel that will make you feel what it might be like to be someone else—lots of someones, over and over–until the only regret that you can feel is not making the most of your own time on earth, even when your next moment consists of limping tiredly off of an airplane to greet the gray light of morning in the place you’ve chosen to live.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2017 7:23 pm

    Well, this sounds lovely. Do you think I would like it? I’ve only read one short story by George Saunders so far, and I liked it well enough — deeply weird in a way that I enjoyed, and probably would have improved upon multiple rereadings as well.

    • March 24, 2017 9:08 am

      I cannot imagine that you would not like it; it really is beautiful in its scope. The sadness is part of the beauty, though, so be warned that one of the slave stories–which is already over–is quite terrible, just as leaving it out would have been.

  2. March 23, 2017 9:11 pm

    My book club will be reading this before the year’s out. I suspect I will like it but a lot of the other members won’t.

    • March 24, 2017 9:09 am

      Do remind everyone that it takes a couple of chapters to get used to how many voices there are, telling the story.

  3. March 24, 2017 6:40 am

    I keep contemplating reading this but in any event there is a long waiting line at the library, so I have more time to decide. Nicely reviewed!

  4. March 24, 2017 8:46 am

    This sounds fantastic. I’ve been a bit lukewarm on Saunders while reading in the past but his stories always stick with me, often becoming the glue between other things I’ve read. Really looking forward to this one.

    • March 24, 2017 9:14 am

      I’ve read some of his stories, mostly from Tenth of December, and found them very dark. Despite the subject matter of this novel, though, it’s less dark. I feel like he balances the dark with the light, finally.

  5. March 24, 2017 12:13 pm

    I have a library hold request for the audiobook of this. Saunders reads and there are a cast of named actors and others who also read. I am anticipating that it will be amazing.

    • March 24, 2017 2:35 pm

      I hope it is. I’m assuming that they thought about how to make each voice distinctive and recognizable, so you’ll know who is speaking from the vast cast of characters.

  6. March 25, 2017 8:00 am

    I listened to this book on audio and really enjoyed it. I am planning to re-read it in paper copy as soon as I can get over my reading slump!

    • March 25, 2017 8:10 am

      So the audio version must be good! The best way to make yourself want to read more might be to read something new and good, like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet–or if you’ve read it, the new one, A Closed and Common Orbit. I just finished reading it and am writing about it now.

  7. March 27, 2017 9:19 pm

    Yes to all of this – it was incredibly sad but not in a hopeless way, just in the way that life is beautiful and sad all at once. I’m so glad you liked it. It’s a high-wire act of fearless writing.

    • March 27, 2017 10:19 pm

      That’s a good metaphor for it–a high-wire act…and with so many characters to balance!

  8. March 28, 2017 10:21 am

    A beautiful review of what sounds like an amazing book. I, too, felt lukewarm about the author after reading Tenth of December, but it sounds like this book isn’t quite as dark. I’m adding it to my TBR list.

    • March 28, 2017 11:09 am

      I didn’t feel like it was as dark. This author seems to have come into his full voice with this novel; maybe the stories weren’t long enough anymore.

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