Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This is a book composed of fragments, woven together from many voices, some real, some invented (I wasn’t always sure which were which, but it doesn’t really matter). My thoughts about it are going to be fragmented too.

I blasted through Lincoln in the Bardo in two days. Its voices would have rewarded lingering, I think, but immersing myself in them for a few hours straight worked well too.

I’m not sure the ideas of the novel would have held up to slower reading. I’m not sure its ideas are the point. Even racing through, I felt that Saunders’ picture of the afterlife was infused with clichés. The bardo is a liminal state between life and death. Here’s Hari Kunzru’s description in his review:

Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all bardos, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body.

Saunders combines this idea with elements of Christian purgatory. Is it fair to expect anyone to come up with new ideas about life and death and loss? Probably not. The vibrant voices Saunders invents often revivify the clichés, the intensity of their desires (however gross they sometimes are) and mourning are the strength of the book. 

I wondered if I were alone in feeling this way about a book that has gotten so many raves, but Caleb Crain dings it for sentimentality (and sadism), and even Kunzru believes the novel stumbles at the end. I can be sentimental myself, so I didn’t really mind this, but I think the book is stronger in its parts than in its whole. Its theology, or eschatology, isn’t really coherent, except for the insistence on letting go. I suspect that isn’t where Saunders’ main interest lay.

My favorite character, I think, was Roger Bevins, whose narrative often veers off into cataloguing the richness of the world he’s trying to deny he’s left:

such as, for example, a sleeping dog dream-kicking in a tree-shade triangle; a sugar pyramid upon a blackwood tabletop being rearranged grain-by-grain by an indiscernible draft; a cloud passing ship-like above a rounded green hill, atop which a line of colored shirts energetically dance in the wind, while down below in the town, a purple-blue day unfolds (the muse of spring incarnate), each moist-grassed, flower-pierced yard gone positively mad with–

It’s just as well his buddy Vollman reins in the sentimentality at this point.

Many of the desires that bind Saunders’ spirits to the world are far pettier and cruder–the man fixated on raping his slaves is particularly unpleasant. I wouldn’t say Saunders has compassion for all these desires, or that he equates them, exactly, but all of them are human, and all should be renounced so these characters can move on to where they’re supposed to go. Whether Willie Lincoln and the others will manage that is the question that gives the book its narrative drive.

I found the voices of the few Black spirits (all of whom had been enslaved in life) the least convincing, and that’s too bad. It’s part of a larger weakness of the book, which is that the connection between Lincoln’s private tragedy and the national tragedy of the Civil War, the scale of which was increasing at the time of Willie Lincoln’s death, is sentimentalized and underdeveloped. There didn’t seem to be a compelling reason for Saunders to tie this book to the Lincolns and to include historical voices among the fictional ones.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find this book on the Man Booker shortlist, and although I’m going to predict it won’t win that, I bet it will win some prizes. And I’m OK with that. There’s a lot to admire in this polyphonic spree of a novel, despite the flaws.

One down! I’ve got three more to pick up from the library this afternoon or tomorrow. I might actually make a decent dent in this Booker project.

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9 Responses to Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

  1. Sounds really interesting, but maybe not for me. Did it remind you at all of Spoon River Anthology?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I haven’t actually read that, but I did think of it, and Crain’s review is probably not the only one to mention it. I’d say, from what I know about Spoon River, that this is less focused on the scope of a community or giving a sense of the whole of a life. In a way, that’s related to the weakness of the tie to Lincoln/Civil War. It gestures towards the “community” of the nation but doesn’t really elaborate that link, I thought. Maybe it’s just too subtle for me.

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    I consider myself something of a Saunders fan on the basis of a short story, “Sea Oak,” that just blew me away (it was in Pastoralia, a worthwhile and interesting short story collection, but that was the only story in there that I truly adored). I’ve read / seen a number of interviews with him and find him really likeable because he comes across as humble and sincere. I’ve always wanted to read more of him, and when Lincoln in the Bardo came out I was excited that he had finally written a novel (he has talked in the past about how the short form is his skill and how he wasn’t certain he could produce a successful novel).

    The thing that gave me pause was the way he described the Bardo in interviews. As you point out, it’s not exactly freshly conceived. I also wonder if it isn’t culturally appropriative to take a part of Tibetan Buddhism and mold it to his own purposes by mixing it with Christian purgatory? It kind of sounds that way from the descriptions but I could be wrong. On the other hand I love the idea of a surreal / otherworldly novel about Lincoln’s grief for his son.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Aside from using the term, it’s such a vague mix of ideas that are part of many traditions (detaching oneself from the world) that it didn’t feel appropriative to me. But I am not a Tibetan Buddhist and the term bardo wasn’t one I’d heard before. (It isn’t mentioned in the novel at all and maybe that is part of why it didn’t seem like an issue to me–purgatory has so many resonances for a Western audience that he may have been trying to avoid).

      It’s interesting that you describe him as sincere, because that could be a more positive way to name what Crain calls sentimentality. While it didn’t seem original or even maybe that deeply reflected on, the moral impulses of the novel did seem sincere and I liked that about it (because I am sentimental? Maybe). Ultimately it made the book feel hopeful even though it was often sad. Sad but not depressing? That seems right.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Thanks, that’s good to know (that he doesn’t use the term bardo other than in the title) and makes me feel a bit better about it. Some of his short fiction could also be described as sad but not depressing. He finds the humanity in his characters, and the humor in their situations, even when those situations are pretty hopeless or desperate.

        • Kaetrin says:

          I was interested in this one when I heard about it on Pop Culture Happy Hour and in particular that it had such a last cast on the audio version. But even though I’ve wishlisted it I don’t think the subject matter is really for me. And as an Australian I don’t have any cultural attraction to the topic either so I expect it will languish on that wishlist.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          The audio sounds like a really interesting approach to a book that could be hard to capture that way (although even on paper he did an amazing job of distinguishing the voices). I have heard only great things about how they pulled it off.

  3. Sunita says:

    Oh, this does sound interesting, although some of the flaws you note make me wince. I’m looking forward to listening to this with TheHusband, since his sociologist’s sensibilities often pick up things I don’t, and because we’ll be able to talk about it as we go along. I will report back. Great start to your readings/listenings!

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