I had read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders overcome by the hubbub of its winning the Booker Prize in 2017. Back then, I felt sour about spending a hefty amount on a book that wasn’t historical fiction in the true sense though it promised to be about Abraham Lincoln and his deceased son.
But some months later, I had come across Pastoralia, a short story by George Saunders. It blew my mind. Saunders had set up a parallel world, a theme park where all the characters of the story were caged in enacting the primitive life for a living. Since then, I have been wanting to reread Lincoln in the Bardo and see if I was wrong the first time. Finally, a week back I picked up this book. This post is how I felt about this book in my second read.
Bardo is a sort of purgatory. It is a Tibetan word for the intermediary period between death and rebirth. A soul wandering within the confines of a cemetery with no knowledge of death or a reason for this state or when they will be freed of it. Lincoln in the title is Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s third son who passed away at the tender age of 11.
The book alternates between fiction and non-fiction narratives.
The fiction part entails an intriguing night with ghosts discussing their past, cause of death, and grief left behind, intermingled with Abraham Lincoln at the cemetery.
Now instead of including a commentary on the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln from publications and media, Saunders directly puts excerpts from publications, journals, memoirs, and letters from that period to provide a perspective on speculations and assumptions.
The flow of these excerpts is so perfect that even without an explanation you realize the stark difference in the reportage. Just reading the statements on the moon during the night of Willie’s demise that ranges from a new moon to a full moon makes you question the historical authenticity of events. Surely, reality and truth served through news reports or publications aren’t enough to tell us what indeed happened that night.
We know Willie was ill and Lincolns had a party at the house the night he succumbed to death. This shattered the Lincolns. But the excerpts rather judge Abraham Lincoln as a father. These passages also reveal how the press and people alike blamed Lincoln for the devastating outcomes of the Civil War.
At the cemetery, there are three main ghosts – Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and Reverend Everly Thomas, and a multitude of other ghosts who get a line, or a paragraph at the most. A major portion of the narrative depends upon them telling us the stories of average people and their issues.
This time around I am appreciative of Saunders’ courage to experiment with fiction writing. And yet he could build some strong emotional moments in the book, especially one where Abraham Lincoln is at the cemetery and having an internal monologue about his deceased son.
If you are in my first frame of mind, you will feel that this was a lazy attempt of a fiction writer to compile information and present it as a book. Am I supposed to read the research notes of a writer?
And if you are in my current temperament, you will be intrigued by a mesmerizing labyrinth of a supernatural realm, newspaper reports, and a cacophony of emotional outpourings. Death, grief, and loss are tragic to read but no one is untouched by suffering. This book is uncomfortable and eerie in some places, but Saunders’ writing has the magic to capture you inside a carapace before you think of putting down the book.