Book Review: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

lincolninthebardo

“He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

Only I did not think it would be so soon.

Or that he would precede us.

Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another.

Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond.

I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.”

This book was truly something amazing! Not your average read, but rather something to be experienced.

Be warned: the format of this book definitely took some getting used to. A multitude of narrators pitch in to tell the story, often for just one line at a time before switching to the next character. Interspersed within this structure are lines from Abraham Lincoln biographies and actual correspondence by his contemporaries. At the beginning I did ask myself, “Can I get past the unusual style?” The answer was very quickly revealed to be a yes, and I am so glad for it!

At the core of the story: when President Lincoln’s son Willie dies of typhoid fever he finds himself in the bardo, a place where according to Tibetan tradition we go after dying but before moving on to the next life. The colorful cast of characters young Willie encounters here all have their own reasons for not wanting to let go of the lives they knew (revenge, unfulfilled desires, etc). Many of them deny the truth of their condition even to themselves, instead choosing to believe that what they are experiencing is akin to an illness. The distasteful things they leave each night to rise up and move about are simply their “sick-forms”, left in isolation in “sick boxes” as a form of treatment. These characters offer up much absurdity and hilarity in equal measure.

willie-lincoln
William Wallace Lincoln
oak hill
Oak Hill Cemetery, the book’s setting – I don’t know why these captions won’t show up aligned in the center…

Histories report that the elder Lincoln went for a prolonged visit in the dead of night to the cemetery where his son was temporarily interred in a borrowed tomb. This story takes place over the course of that night. Though the way the story is told is so very amusing at times, it contains many moments that can be sad or touching, but also hopeful moments.

“All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness.

(So why grieve?

The worst of it, for him, is over.)

Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worrying and doing.

Only there is nothing left to do.”

Besides what he felt over the loss of his child, this book also takes a look at what Lincoln may have thought about the war his country was embroiled in while he was at its helm, and those who blamed him for the deaths of so many American soldiers on both sides. There is no shortage of good lines on the subject of grief here. A few I appreciated:

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which-which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with the happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.

To us.

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we a bring baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby must also depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.”

And one last bit about the nation that may offer a bit of hope:

“Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched) and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.”

 

The icing on the cake: it turns out this author teaches at Syracuse University. I hail from Syracuse myself, and the hospital I work at is basically across the street from the University. I stop at the local Starbucks every morning on my way in to work, and now I wonder if maybe I’ll cross paths with him there someday 🙂

 

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