Book Club: Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I'm not great with avant-garde so Lincoln in the Bardo didn't seem like the kind of book I would enjoy. I gave it a chance on Audible after I heard that the audio version was winning a bunch of awards because of its long cast list (that includes Nick Offerman!) and creative use of the format. I gotta say, it was definitely not what I was expecting.
In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other—for no one but Saunders could conceive it.
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
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When I first started listening to this audiobook, I had no idea what was going on and I almost gave up on it. The first hour felt like I was just listening to a bunch of footnotes and it was so confusing. After a while, I start to realize who the characters are and it gets better, so if you're planning on listening to the audiobook like I did, it's going to require some patience.
That said, once you get in the swing of things, the writing is exquisite! You can tell that George Saunders is a talented writer because his style is absolutely brilliant. To write a summary of the book would be almost impossible because his story is complex and thought-provoking. You can't just start somewhere without talking about the nuances of how the book makes you feel. I think that's the mark of a good writer.
President Abraham Lincoln lost his son Willie who doesn't realize he's dead yet. 11-year-old Willie's soul is stuck in this purgatory-like transitional phase with other ghosts who occupy the cemetery. Lincoln visits the crypt several times to hold the body of his deceased son and the other ghosts look on with respect to the incredible moment of tenderness that happens. Lincoln leaves, but not without promising that he would soon return, prompting Willie to stay and wait for him. The other ghosts try to encourage the boy to move on but as Willie will not be deterred, the ghosts hatch a plan to usher him to the next realm.
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This book was nothing like I've ever read before. It felt like part play, mixed with real historical citations that gave the entire story a lot of nuance. For example, Saunders gave conflicting historical (real) views of Abraham Lincoln's appearance - many thought he was an ugly man but from many documents of those who knew him better thought he was handsome and refined. The juxtapositions of conflicting opinions with the fictional story really helped to blur the line of reality and fantasy in an artful way that I hadn't seen done before.
I really enjoyed learning about the other ghosts too. The ghosts' forms are related to the unresolved issues at the time of their deaths so you got to see some interesting characterizations here. There was Hans Vollman who died before he was able to consummate his marriage to his young wife so his form is naked with a "huge swollen member." There's Roger Bevins who died as he became aware of the beauty of life so his body is covered with eyes, noses, and hands. The ghosts aren't aware that they are dead and they refer to their carcasses as "sick forms" and their coffins as "sick boxes." I honestly wish that Saunders could have explored the relationship of these ghosts more as I would have liked to know more about them.
All in all, while this book wasn't what I was expecting and was confusing to me for a good beginning portion of it, I really did end up liking it when I finished. I'm not usually the biggest fan of avant-garde in most forms, especially writing, so I couldn't believe I was giving this book a four star rating on Goodreads! Still, I do recommend it to everyone, but with a note of patience, especially in the beginning.