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Caught in purgatory

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders book review

By Drew Heiderscheidt
On February 26, 2017

    On February 20, 1862 the third son of Abraham Lincoln, Willie, died due to Typhoid fever. He was twelve years old. Lincoln, along with his wife Mary Todd, were both devastated. From an interview with one of his secretary at the time, it was reported that Lincoln walked into the room right after his son passed and said “My boy is gone— he is actually gone!” and burst into tears.

    “Lincoln in the Bardo” is George Saunders’ first novel, although he has been awarded highly as a fiction writer for his short stories over the past 20 years. Before I started “Lincoln” I thought that Saunders had reached his peak already, particularly with his last short story collection “The Tenth of December.” I was wrong, and I’m glad about it. “Lincoln in the Bardo” is a tour de force, and Saunders at his peak (and, I’d say, the best American novel of the 21st century so far).

    Let me explain the premise of the book first. What is a bardo? I had to look up the term— it is a Tibetan Buddhist concept, meaning after the soul has departed the body, but before it has been reincarnated. In Saunders’s telling, it is essentially a sort of purgatory, where those who have died but not yet gone to heaven or hell (or elsewhere) are interred. They’re essentially ghosts, without the knowledge that they’re dead. Two of the main characters, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, constantly refer to coffins and their bodies as their “sick-box” and “sick-form”, respectively. They are not the only ghosts there, however. There’s many more, including slaves, white trash hicks, wealthy people, military officers, wives, mothers, revolutionaries, young bachelors; in full, Saunders has illuminated American society in this one small cemetery, where all of them are doomed to walk until they realize they’re dead.

Then, one day, in comes a young boy— Willie Lincoln. While most children leave the bardo relatively quickly, within minutes, Willie stays for hours, waiting for his father. He keeps telling them that his father promised him he would come. The older ghosts tell him he must leave, before bad things happen to him. However, Willie continues to stay, despite a variety of different hellish scenarios that seem to be right out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

The story takes place on the night of Willie’s interment, when Lincoln comes to the graveyard to see Willie’s body one last time. These moments where Lincoln is at the cemetery are, to me, some of the most touching moments in any of the literature I’ve read. When Willie (or other ghosts) enter inside of Lincoln’s body, they can hear his thoughts, and hear him grieve for his lost son. All is over now. He is either in joy or nothingness,” Lincoln thinks. (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 worry and doing.

I don’t want to spoil the story any further, because it’s worth reading to the end. However, what I will say is that the novel is extremely avant-garde, written like a script in a way where it takes thinking to put together everything. This will make it difficult for some to read. For me, it took about thirty pages before I realized what was happening. Stick with it though, as you keep reading everything comes together, and it’s incredibly satisfying to figure it out.

But this style, this experimental style that Saunders takes, which reads somewhat like a script, is what makes “Lincoln in the Bardo” a work of genius. Saunders intertwines historical accounts of Lincoln (Real? Fake? I couldn’t tell you. The excerpts I Googled are real) with ghostly portions completely from his imagination. At first glance, this may seem lazy, but it adds to the entire atmosphere of the novel to hear Lincoln’s contemporaries (and later historians) discussing and describing Lincoln himself, and the atmosphere in the White House at the time of Willie’s death (in a few words, terribly depressing, and stressful seeing as it was in the midst of the Civil War).

Saunders had achieved an extraordinary feat in his first novel. He has created a world, so vivid and hellish, but also touching and hilarious, that I find it hard to believe anyone could have created it. But he did it, and in telling the story of Lincoln and the death of his son, he has created reading essential for anybody, especially those in need of a lesson in empathy.

Should you read this book? Everyone should read this book, it’s a masterpiece of not only American literature, but literature in general.

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