Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Man Booker Prize long list 2017)

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XXII

After perhaps thirty minutes the unkempt man left the white stone home and stumbled away into the darkness.

Entering,  I found the boy sitting in one corner.

My father, he said.

Yes, I said.

He said he will come again, he said. He promised.

I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved.

A miracle, I said.

the reverend everly thomas

February 25, 1862

President Lincoln has returned to the cemetery where his son, Willie, had earlier been interred in his sick-box. The father is overcome with grief for his son, holding him and arranging his hair and creating a dreadful longing amongst the ghosts already there, for they yearn to be touched by someone from “that other place.”

The ghosts: roger bevins iii, hans vollman, the reverend everly thomas, converse amongst themselves thereby filling us in as to the goings-on in the Oak Hill Cemetery. Their voices are interspersed with other ghosts, all indicated by names which are not capitalized, a perfect way to show how “unsubstantial” they are.

As for a bardo…in Tibetan Buddhism, a bardo is a state of existence between death and rebirth. It is in this bardo that the ghosts exist, discussing amongst themselves the woes of death, the way that people have arrived to dwell in the bardo with them. Their conversation is rich in imagination, lush with detail. Who among us does not wonder about how it will be when we depart from this world?

When Mr. Lincoln mourns his son, one of the ghosts imagines what he is thinking:

Because I love 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. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.

Thus thought the gentleman. Thoughtfully combing a patch of grass with his hand.

roger bevins iii

Yet the perspectives which Saunders has written about President Lincoln could well apply to those felt toward our own President Trump today. Look at the irony within these sentiments:

The Presdt is an idiot. ~In “The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan,” edited by Stephen Sears

Vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical, without manners, without social grace, and as he talks to you, punches his fists under your ribs. ~In “The War Years,” by Carl Sandburg, account of SherrardnClemens

Evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis. ~In “The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to the Civil War, 1859-1861, by Allen Nevins account of Edward Everett

These disparaging points of view go on for much longer than I could type them, or perhaps than you would want to read them. We all know of the negative perspectives people have toward our current leader. I only mention them here to point to Saunders’ apt imagination and research, applicable to more than the character of whom he writes.

While I found Lincoln in the Bardo clever and imaginative, ultimately it does not hold up to either Solar Bones or Days Without End, both of which will be hard to beat in my mind.

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18 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Man Booker Prize long list 2017)”

  1. I’ve read two of Mr. Saunders short story collections and, while clever, found them to be hit or miss, especially the longer pieces. Consequently, I’ve been reluctant to take on a novel-length work. I know he is one of the darlings of the literati but he hasn’t really connected with this reader.

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    1. This is the first work of George Saunders’ that I’ve read. I have heard of him, of course, and you’re reference to him being “one of the darlings of literati” made me smile. I’m not there yet with him, wonder if I ever will be, because while I’m impressed with his imagination and research skills I became terribly bored two-thirds through. But, maybe that’s one of the debits of having a stack of Bookers all waiting to be read. There’s a certain pressure inherent in that…

      Thanks for your comment, for reading here. I can’t find a blog of yours? If you have one, I’d love to visit.

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    1. I think fragmented is a good adjective to use here. I kept wishing for more of Lincoln somehow, never realizing it would focus only a tad on Willie and lots on the ghosts or references to Lincoln’s presidency.

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    1. I put it on hold at our library when everyone raved about it, and sent it back largely unread. When I decided to read the Booker long list I checked it out again, and well suitably impressed, I am not “in awe”.

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  2. It’s been a while since I read this, but I seem to remember that the ghosts were rather clueless individuals in both life, and death.
    They seem to be reliving their own hangups over and over, until they finally resolve them and are allowed to move on. Lincoln’s grief for his son kept getting in the way of his responsibilities to the country, consequently he was relegated to the Bardo.
    While the ghosts were rather witty and somewhat wise at times, I grew tired of their trivial concerns and the constant sex. I seem to remember that the grave was supposed to be a fine and private place where none, I thought, did there embrace.
    Apparently I was wrong.

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    1. I agree with your sentiments; I have a different idea of what happens after death as well, but more importantly to this book, the ghosts grew very tiresome! So much so that I ended up basically skimming the last twenty pages. I would have liked more “balance” between Lincoln and his son. Or, I should say, I would have enjoyed reading more about them and less about the ghosts who were obsessed about the craziest things.

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  3. This is my book club pick for the month and already, three people have come up to me to tell me how much they hate it. I had to give them a speech about how saying that is an instant discussion killer. Plus, it’s totally ruined my excitement over reading it. I haven’t started yet. We discuss it the first week of September.

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    1. Isn’t that frustrating when a book is “defeated” by others before you have had a chance read it yourself?! You may very well enjoy this; it certainly is clever in concept and much of its execution. (Wink, wink)

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  4. I really loved this book, but it was my first dance with George Saunders. But I can see why you got tired of the ghosts and their haunting problems. Still, I found it to be such a quick read that they didn’t bother me overmuch. Now, I really must check out Days Without End if it is so much better!

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    1. It was my first dance with George Saunders, too. It was a surprisingly quick read (must be the play-like lines), and I did enjoy most of it very much. My problem is that once I read both Solar Bones and Days Without End, I was done. I can’t imagine any book beating them in my mind. I’d be quite interested in your opinion of either.

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  5. I liked this one as much as Days Without End. I’ve not read Solar Bones and am about halfway through Autumn. So far, I think this one is my favorite Booker, though it tends to flip places with Days Without End as I go through the day. I did not finish History of Wolves.

    I’ve been reading them all with no real idea what any of thme will be about, I honestly thought this one would be about Lincoln visiting a hotel called The Bardo. It took me a while to figure out that sick-boxes were coffins. I thought they were some kind of strange mid-19th century thing.

    Still, I was moved by this book, by Lincoln’s relationship with his son and by the struggle the various ghosts went through coming to terms with their lives, since all of them are stuck in the Bardo due to unfinished business. I loved it.

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    1. I was moved by this book, too, and I found it quite imaginative.

      For me, Solar Bones and Days Without End are neck and neck; I can not ascertain a winner between them as they were both so beautiful in language, plot, and overall power.

      History of Wolves was a ridiculous waste of time; I’m proud of you for abandoning it as I never can. Shall I tell you what happens? It won’t change your life…

      I am now reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith which is quite wonderful. But, it’s hard to read while starting off a new school year, isn’t it?

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