Book Reviews

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo

By: George Saunders

Published: February 14, 2017

The Rundown: “On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery.  That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: The cover is a landscape painting, the only figure a tiny farmer working his field.  According to Saunders, it is meant to evoke 19th century America, which was still largely pastoral.  The blues and dark greens of the painting lend it a melancholy tone, and the smallness of the farmer suggests the ultimate meaninglessness of all human endeavors.  It ties in very well with the book thematically, but doesn’t provide much information for someone browsing covers in the bookstore.

What a Wonderful World: In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is a place where souls reside after death but before reincarnation.  It is a transitional place; if you stay there to long, then you experience horrifying hallucinations.  Saunders takes the bardo and places it in a Christian context, making it a sort of purgatory that the dead stay in until they’re ready to move on to Heaven or Hell.  In Lincoln in the Bardo, the dead have yet to accept that they are dead.  They refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes,” and when a soul ascends to the afterlife, they call it the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.”  In a somber tale, this is one of the few instances of Saunders’ trademark sardonic wit.

The Good Guys: There are three protagonists:

Hans Vollman: Vollman is a printer who married a girl half his age.  He wanted a romance, not a child bride, so he treated his wife with kindness and respect until she expressed sexual interest in him.  Unfortunately, before they could consummate their marriage, a wooden beam fell on Vollman’s head, killing him.  In death, Vollman manifests as a naked man with a grotesquely giant penis.  He still hopes to recover from his “illness” and make love to his wife.

Roger Blevens III: Blevens is a young gay man.  Despite society’s disapproval, he began dating, and fell in love with, a classmate named Gilbert.  Unfortunately, Gilbert decided that he wanted to live “correctly” and dumped Blevens, upon which Blevens committed suicide.  At the last moment, Blevens decided that he did not want to die: life is just too beautiful.  He believes that he is still lying on his kitchen floor, and hopes to be rescued.  He manifests as numerous floating hands and eyeballs.

The Reverend Early Thomas: The Reverend alone knows that the inhabitants of the graveyard are deceased.  He has been to the afterlife, and knows what awaits him there.  He manifests as a very frightened-looking man.

Matterlightblooming Phenomenon: In between chapters set in the bardo, there are chapters composed of letters and memoirs.  This places the rest of the story into the context of the Civil War, breathing life into real historical events.  For example, there are vivid descriptions of the extravagant party the Lincolns threw at the White House while Willie lay upstairs, dying of typhoid.  Particularly interesting were the occurrences when the memoirists disagreed.  For example, nobody could agree about what the moon looked like on the night of the party, or what color Lincoln’s eyes were.  It highlighted the unreliability of memory, and more specifically, the unreliability of any representation of historical figures.

Flesh Mirror: I’m not sure about Saunders’ decision to bring Tibetan Buddhism into this by including the term “bardo” in the title.  None of the characters that Saunders was writing about—that is, 19th century Americans—were Tibetan Buddhists, or even knew what the bardo was.  Sure, they all exist in a transitional state, but where they go afterwards is more in accordance with traditional Christianity than Buddhism.  Why even bring it up?  Yes, Saunders is a Buddhist, and believes that the bardo is a real place, but in the context of the novel, it just seems like half-hearted cultural appropriation.

Does it Represent…

Women: Eh, not really.  There are a few female ghosts in the cemetery: a miserable old hoarder, a woman who can’t imagine how her daughters will survive without her, etc.  Martha Lincoln, and her inability to cope with her son’s death, is mentioned a few times.  However, for the most part the female characters are footnotes; all the characters who have an impact on the narrative are men.

People of Color: Outside of the cemetery is a mass pit in which the bodies of slaves are dumped.  During Lincoln’s visit to his son’s crypt, the slaves enter the cemetery and begin telling their stories.  There are three people of note: a man who aspired to be like his masters in life, and in death, wants revenge on all white people; a man who was well-treated by his masters, but still longed for the freedom to determine his own path in life; and a young women who, due to her exceptional beauty, was repeatedly raped.  The latter’s story was particularly heart-breaking.  It reminded me of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which beauty in a slave is described not as a blessing, but a curse.

LGBT People: Blevens, one of the three main characters, is a gay man who secretly pursues a homosexual relationship.  The relationship doesn’t work out, and the reason presented is that it was ended due to societal norms.  I liked that there was actually more to it, and that that tired trope was subverted.

The Disabled: No, unless you consider death to be a disability.

Memorable Quote: “Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.”

Recommended for: People interested in Lincoln or the Civil War.  Fans of postmodern literature would also get a kick out of this book.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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