Random House, 2017
"Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch." (306)
With apologies for interjecting what some people might consider an f-bomb here, Caitlin PenzeyMoog from The A.V. Club absolutely nails my own experience with this book when she says that Lincoln in the Bardo "will blow your fucking mind." I don't think I could say it any better. I loved and was beyond awed by this book, and while it's only March, unless something equally outstanding comes along, this novel just may turn out to be my favorite book of the year. It is absolutely stunning, and highly deserving of every superlative I can think of.
"The Bardo" is not a place on any map, but in Tibetan Buddhism, is considered to be an "intermediate state," referring to
"the in-between existence experienced during the transitional period from the moment of death to the moment of conception. However, this term has also been used to express all transitional experiences throughout life; for example, the experience of sleeping is an intermediate state between the moments of falling asleep and waking, and even the moment of death itself is considered an intermediate state between life and the after-death experience."In addition, "adherents of Tibetan Buddhism consider people always to be in a transitional state between one experience and another," a concept that will become very important as the book progresses.
To give a brief, simplistic peek at what's happening in this book, Abraham Lincoln has just lost his young son Willie to typhoid, and he is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery before the Lincolns can return to Illinois for a proper burial. After the funeral, a severely grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt to spend time with his boy, finding it beyond difficult to leave him. While Willie's body is dead, his soul/spirit (or however you want to define it) continues on, and he finds himself in the company of countless other souls who have not yet made the transition. They are a varied group in terms of who they were before they passed away, a multitude of spirits all with their histories and their own voices that talk to us as this journey progresses. The chief among them are Hans Vollman, The Reverend Everly Thomas, and Roger Bevins III, who have not yet transcended and are waiting for things to be as before (meaning they don't quite understand their situation), and who serve as our window into what is happening in the cemetery. As a child, though, Willie can't afford to linger -- our guides reveal that he is deteriorating and worse -- for the sake of his soul he absolutely must move on before it is too late. As Bevins reveals, "the young ones were not meant to tarry."
In a genius move on the author's part, we stay with these spirits and with Willie throughout most of the book, but then he shifts his focus after a time to the President, who is not only paralyzed with grief, unable to make himself leave his son in the crypt, but also stuck in a critical moment. As we're told, while "young Willie lay under embalmment," the President and citizens learn of the incredible number of casualties
"from the Union Victory at Fort Donelson ... an event that caused a great a great shock among the public at that time, the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war."As one account notes,
"As the dead piled up in unimaginable numbers and sorrow was added to sorrow, a nation that had known little of sacrifice blamed Lincoln for a dithering mismanagement of the war effort."He has become to many the worst president in American history; he is hated and reviled; and as he continues to grieve for his son he grieves for the nation; he also wonders how to proceed in the midst of so much sorrow. Ultimately, it will be his own time spent lingering in the Bardo that will help him to achieve his own transformation that will allow him to move on. How that comes about I won't say, but the last few chapters of this book will, as the AV Club writer said, blow your ***ing mind.
As always, since I'm just a reader and not a writer, and not someone who knows how to do real reviews, it's difficult to convey the intensity of this novel in a short post and I can never fully seem to give the best books the justice they're due. But Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful novel and Saunders' writing is an experience in itself. In terms of style, it is not written as one long historical-fiction narrative, but in a format that is itself unique. In the first chapter, we encounter our first glimpse of the cemetery inhabitants, whose names appear beneath every utterance, so that there are no quotation marks to denote speech.
|Sorry about the crappy blurry photo - I was in a hurry.|
Then there are alternating chapters of what appear to be contemporary accounts and some from modern histories that provide voices of the time or historical perspective, noted in the same way to give the names of the speaker, the historian, the journalist, the diary writer, etc. These seem to be a blending of real and fictional works, all done brilliantly. There is just so much genius, beauty and power to be found in these pages, and in my opinion, some readers might just discover that although the book is set in 1862, it is also a perfect book for our own time.