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To set things straight from the start, a “bardo” is the place between life and death in Buddhist philosophy. Secondly – no, this is not another book about the death of the most famous Lincoln, the great American leader Abraham.
And thirdly – and most importantly –
“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders is probably one of the most beautiful, the most haunting and strangest books you’ll ever read.
Who Should Read “Lincoln in the Bardo”? And Why?
“Lincoln in the Bardo” has been described as a moving father/son story, but that description doesn’t do half the justice it should.
Because it’s also an experimental novel which melds history and fiction, reality and supernatural events in quite an original way.
Making it a novel which will tickle the fancy not only of those people interested in American history but also those interested in the new development in the world of literature.
Strangely enough, this is also a novel people can find exceptionally poignant even if they don’t care about Lincoln or high art.
George Saunders Biography
George Saunders is an American writer of mostly short stories and essays, and a professor at Syracuse University from where he received an M.A. in creative writing in 1988.
He debuted with “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a book which was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award. A decade later, “In Persuasion Nation” was a finalist for the Story Prize, a prize he won in 2013, for his most famous collection of short stories, “Tenth of December.”
The same book won the inaugural Folio Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” was Saunders’ debut novel, and it immediately got him the Man Booker Prize.
Saunders also has won the National Magazine Award four times – in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is an experimental novel based on the true story of the boy on this photograph:
The boy’s name is William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, and he’s the son of then-United-States President Abraham Lincoln.
He wouldn’t live much longer after this photograph was taken: In 1862, at the age of 11, Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever.
The Civil War was raging, and Abraham Lincoln was devastated.
My poor boy,” he supposedly said. “He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so much. It is hard, hard to have him die!
Well, in Saunders’ reimagination of the things, Willie didn’t go to heaven, and God didn’t call him home.
Instead, he remained in the bardo, which, in Tibetan Buddhism, is the intermediary state between life and the next rebirth.
Here, he spends his time with few other people, some of them real and some of them fictional – just like the sources Saunders constantly uses to give his fictional account strange verifiability.
In his words:
I made a bunch of ghosts. They were sort of cynical; they were stuck in this realm, called the bardo (from the Tibetan notion of a sort of transitional purgatory between rebirths), stuck because they’d been unhappy or unsatisfied in life. The greatest part of their penance is that they feel utterly inessential – incapable of influencing the living.
One of these ghosts is Hans Vollman, a printer killed by a falling support beam at the age of 46. Another is Roger Bevins III, who took his life after his love was unrequited by a young man named Gilbert.
First, Saunders walks us through the events which led to Willie’s death.
He got sick, but the doctor believed that it was merely a cold and that he should soon recover. Relieved, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, proceeded with a state dinner which was already on the table (pun unintended).
And as Willie was lying sick in his bed – his condition constantly deteriorating – the Lincolns were saying their hi-s and how-are-you-s to many important diplomats, officers, and politicians.
Willie died soon after this evening.
Abraham was so heartbroken that – and this is a real story verified by few of the newspapers at the time – he visited his son’s temporary crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery on several occasions and firmly held Willie’s body in his arms.
In fact, the very stuff which inspired Saunders to write his novel:
Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà.
I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is the result of that attempt.
Now, in the bardo, Willie is surrounded by the ghosts of the men buried in the same cemetery as him.
The catch is – and this sounds just like a line from “The Sixth Sense” – the don’t know that they are dead. They are just not feeling as fine as they should.
To them, the bardo is much more of a hospital than a limbo.
So, Vollman and Bevins encourage Willie to leave the bardo – especially since they know that it is a dangerous place for young people.
One such young woman by the name of Elise Traynor, for example, didn’t want to leave the bardo for much too long and remained there forever.
Outside the bardo, Lincoln comes to Willie’s crypt and hugs his body. He’s crying, and he’s saying all kinds of things which will either make you cry or prove that you are a robot.
This gives everybody in the bardo some hope that Willie may have a chance to go back (instead of forward). So, most of the people in the bardo start telling Willie their stories, so that he can help them once he gets out of there.
(I’m telling ya: this is genuine Sixth-Sense stuff…)
The roof around Willie liquefies, and he is suddenly seated in a gray-white puddle. And from out that puddle, a vine-like tendril emerges, which, cobra-like, grabs him over the juncture at which his calves cross, and afterward stiffens.
To quote Roger Bevins III:
A chilling development.
Especially having in mind that that’s exactly what happened to Elise Traynor – and what kept happening until she was, secured, Gulliver-like, on the roof.
So, Vollman and Bevins follow Lincoln and merge with him, trying to get him back to Willie’s mausoleum. Lincoln suddenly realizes that he forgot to lock it and that’s exactly where he heads.
In the meantime, Willie starts a conversation with the Reverend Everly Thomas, who – surprise! surprise! – knows that he is dead.
What he doesn’t know is why he is in the bardo.
His best guess: must be some unaccounted-for sin, some unfinished business.
That’s it: this book’s most definitely based on M. Night Shyamalan’s extraordinary film!
Or is it?
Abraham Lincoln comes back to the museum.
Vollman and Bevins convince Willie to merge with his father, but by the time they do that, Abraham has all but left.
So, some new tendrils spring forth from the ground, and the voices of unrepentant sinners echo in the bardo all around.
Hearing them, Reverend Thomas realizes something along the lines of “hey, I’m not such a bad guy, after all” and is suddenly infused with a hard-to-predict strength which gives him the confidence that he can trick the tendrils.
He does, and this bravery grants him a passage to the next stage of the afterlife.
We don’t know exactly what that stage is, though, since neither Dante nor Haley Joel Osment have described it.
Lincoln in the Bardo Epilogue
So now, Willie finally merges with his father and, upon hearing his thoughts, he realizes that he is dead. He relays the message to the rest of the folks in the bardo, and he is finally saved and blessed with the opportunity to move on to the next pre-reincarnation stage.
At the same moment, Lincoln overcomes his grief and realizes that he is still the President of the United States and that the Civil War isn’t going to fight itself.
So, he goes back to his team of rivals and prepares to beat some Southern traditions into oblivion.
Meanwhile, in the bardo, released by Willie’s pronouncement, many more souls accept their own deaths and start passing into the afterlife.
Vollman and Bevins notwithstanding.
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“Lincoln in the Bardo PDF Quotes”
(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. Only there is nothing left to do. Click To Tweet
Strange, isn't it? To have dedicated one's life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one's life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one's labors ultimately forgotten? Click To TweetHe came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is a moving story about a largely overlooked moment of Lincoln’s presidency, told in a way no novel before it has been told.
So, it’s original both in terms of content and style.
And practically everybody recognized this from the very moment it was published.
That’s why the novel made it to #5 on Time’s list of the best novels from 2017 (we have the summary of the novel “Time” voted the very best as well: see which one it is here).
Even more, that’s why the novel won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, which – as we all know, is a notoriously difficult task for any American.