Before it won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, I had no intention to read George Saunders‘ first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I knew Saunders is known for his short stories, but short stories were never really my thing, so I never read any of his works before. The title of the novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, didn’t make sense to me at the time and thus put me off from wanting to read it. Good thing it won the Booker; otherwise, I would have missed out on a truly entertaining and wonderful novel!
First, some clarifications for those who, like me, had questions about the title of this novel. If you don’t already know, Lincoln in the Bardo is about THE Lincoln, as in Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, the abolisher of slavery, the Gettysberg Addressor, and the Emancipation Proclamator,
and vampire hunter. However, the Lincoln being referred to in the novel’s title is Willie Lincoln, Abe’s 11-year-old son who, at the beginning of the novel, had just died from typhoid fever. The word bardo comes from Tibetan Buddhism, which means a transitional period of existence between death and rebirth; a sort of limbo where you hang around after dying while you decide whether or not to move on and accept your death or to stay and try to fix some unfinished business. That, in a nutshell, is what Lincoln in the Bardo is all about: a very brief transitional period in Willie Lincoln’s life…er…death, where he is hanging around at the cemetery, trying to figure out where he is and why he’s there and who everyone around him is, telling him to move on because it’s not right for children to dilly-dally in that place because bad things will happen to them.
Basically, the entire novel takes place in the span of one night in a graveyard, though the events leading up to Willie’s death, the aftermath of his funeral, and other significant historical tidbits about the Lincoln family affair, including the presidency and the Civil War, are also discussed. After Willie’s funeral, it was historically rumored that Abe Lincoln went back to his grave in the middle of the night to visit his son alone. No one knows what really happened during that visit, so George Saunders supplied the missing information, using his creativity and imagination.
Willie’s death and Abe’s grief are not what makes this novel compelling. What makes it interesting is the style in which it is written. The novel uses two types of narratives to tell the story of Willie’s death. The first is by compiling excerpts from existing documents, novels, records, letters, biographies, newspapers, and so on about Abraham Lincoln to build up the historical setting and atmosphere. Through the different excerpts, Saunders presents information about Abe’s administration, Willie’s death, and people’s reaction at the time by various sources. The result is a bit like reading a review of related literature of a thesis, with countless citations of other people’s work.
The other part of the book, the one dealing with Willie’s death, is told by the different inhabitants of the graveyard who welcome Willie as he becomes one of them – a ghost. Except that these ghosts are in denial about their existence. They think that they are still merely sick or injured or waiting for something, anything, rather than being actually dead. Some of them have been in the cemetery for ages, while some have just arrived, all living and “existing” together waiting to get back to their real lives. Willie’s arrival and short stay at the cemetery are described by the different ghosts who encounter him, namely, Hans Vollman, Roger Bevin III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, to name a few. Other ghosts appear throughout the night to gawk at Willie and Abe as he visits his son after hours, and all tell the unique and often sad stories of their lives and the shocking, odd, or horrific circumstances of their sickness (death, actually, but they haven’t come to realize that yet), but most important, their hopes, wishes, and dreams, waiting to be fulfilled, after they get better and return to their homes.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a bit confusing and disorienting at first, and the first few chapters take a bit of getting used to, but after getting the hang of how the novel is written, it will prove to be a most poignant and moving story. From Abe’s loss of his young, bright son, to the different stories shared by the different ghostly inhabitants of the cemetery, there is so much longing, desire, grief, and regret as well as opportunities lost, words unsaid, and things undone. However, grief begets the realization of the truth, acceptance, closure, and eventually, peace. The novel presents life as fleeting, temporary, and though evanescent, it is our words, emotions, actions, and love that people will remember once we are gone.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful novel about love, loss, and regret. Yet it is also quite funny and entertaining, often rather bawdy. I noticed that Saunders was a little bit too preoccupied with the topic of sex. The novel will certainly make you cry, but it will also make you laugh and question your mortality and morality as well as make you want to cherish your loved ones and live your life as if everyday was your last! Okay, maybe not so extreme, but it will certainly get you thinking about how short life is and how you should be glad you are alive!
Despite my praise, I didn’t absolutely love the novel. I found its format, which is a strange mix of literature review and play (as the events in the graveyard are told entirely through dialogue), a bit gimmicky. More than once I questioned whether the novel would have been as interesting had it been written in the traditional way, without a hundred narrators and citations. I also questioned whether it was necessary to use Willie Lincoln’s death as a springboard for the story. Would the novel have been as interesting if it was a story about a fictional father who had lost a fictional son instead of Abraham Lincoln? Why the need to use such a well-known historical personality? Saunders could have kept the narrative style, using made-up books and authors for his citation, like Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Of course, we’ll never know if Lincoln in the Bardo would have been as successful if it was written any other way, so the least we can do is enjoy it.
One last thing, for those who are intimidated by the scope of the story or its unconventional narrative style: read a few chapters (you’ll need to read at least 5 chapters because the chapters are really short) and give the novel a chance to grow on you. It may surprise you, and you might even come to like it enough to read it all the way through! Give it a chance, I promise you won’t regret it!
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) George Saunders
Bloomsbury; 342 pages (TPB)
Personal rating: 4/5