A Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

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Book Reviews

This morning I finished George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which I greatly enjoyed. I enjoyed it not only for the quick flecks of prose that struck like the tongue of a benevolent snake; not only for the scenes of the self-evinced departed rummaging through their own private psychoses, e.g. the Bardo; not only for the utterly imaginative mechanisms and rules of the in-between to which they clung; but for the manner in which they found freedom at the last, for the humanity of what they found, and for the way in which they found it.

Redemption was portrayed as a collective task—dare I say it?—the work of unity and relationship.

There are undoubtedly a great many more relevant elements of this novel than I have described here that I will discover in a second, slower reading, as I felt it was peppered with intriguing symbolism and image. At the same time it was vibrant, witty and immediate—alternately rollicking off the tracks and plunging into vignettes of a father’s grief. But what I was left with most palpably, in the end, were the glorious discoveries made in the climactic scene when the countless rank and file of Saunders’ Bardo piled into the body of President Lincoln in a last-ditch effort to persuade him—nevermind of what.

In this moment of frantic, almost giddy hope, the discarnate briefly forget the cocoons of story and personhood to which they must cling to remain in the Bardo, and discover in this immersion into shared presence what has been lost and all but forgotten. They remember the calamitous beauty of life, the potency of occupying a world in which they once impacted one another significantly, when time was dear, and they remember not only who they once had been, but who they had never become. It is from these heights of unexpected unity, and the delightful way that Saunders both approaches and renders the moment, that the remainder of the work unwinds.

Interspersed throughout the work are chapters in which scenes of President Lincoln are recorded in a blend of authentic and fictional historical quotations. Snippets and tag lines from various witness accounts of the same scenes are assembled to create a hodge-podge of data in which what truly happened is obscured. The eyewitness accounts differ; they betray themselves with bias; they get details wrong and out of place. But also in this work, Saunders’ provides insight into his fictional Lincoln through encounters by various characters with Lincoln’s inner life as well.

Saunder’s employs a similar narrative approach throughout the entire novel: the scenes in the cemetery—the realm of the Bardo—do not have a consistent narrator. The entire story is told through the voices of his characters, who sometimes are in dialogue and sometimes are, like the historical sound bytes described above, providing narration about the scene, their own imaginations, or even about one another. At times they even finish one another’s sentences. Sometimes it is surreal, as when Character A says what Character B is doing, and then vice versa, and then the next moment they are speaking to one another. For me the approach worked, largely because of Saunder’s incredible linguistic dexterity. Also, I enjoyed the way in which it echoed the notion of a human commonality that underlies our diversity, or as it is described in A Course of Love, our shared being in unity and relationship.

For me the book was genius—endearing and humorous, sad and compassionate all at once. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in a unique, entertaining and utterly insightful exploration of the human condition.

20 Comments

  1. Sound to be an historic book weaved with fact and fiction Humour and compassion.. Lovely to catch a post in the reader this evening Michael.
    Wishing you a peaceful weekend.. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for dropping by, Sue. Yes it does have an historical setting, but I wouldn’t quite describe it as historical fiction. The bardo and all that makes it something else entirely almost. A very intriguing combination, but as I noted to Ka it had all the elements of an enduring work for me as well…

      The weekend was nice. Just getting into some spring weather at last… Hope yours was nice as well!
      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, Michael, what a great review of apparently indescribably unique and gripping book! Your post fired me up to check out other reviewers and Mr. Saunders, I enjoyed reading the article/interview of his in The Guardian, on writing. I do not follow any literary happenings these days, so it is always such a welcome and pleasing moment for me to see what is coming out and what is worthwhile to check out. Thank you for that.
    We brushed coats with President Lincoln also briefly today, although not quite in bardo, but at the Sharlot Hall (who was an amazing character here as well) Museum here in Prescott, Arizona, and learned that the town was founded chosen as territorial capital by President Lincoln in 1864 due to its distance from Tuscon AZ where most confederate sympathizers were located, as well as to secure mining resources for the Union.
    I am looking forward to reading the book.
    Thank you,
    Kristina

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting, Kristina! Your story reminds me of John Oliver’s latest show where he talked about the history of gerrymandering. All these geographical dimensions to politics can be so interesting. I think I must have found my way to the same article on the Guardian the day I wrote this post, and I enjoyed that piece a lot, too. I liked his description of writing, and it was reassuring to know the work involves a lot of instinct and lumbering through the darkness and refining, refining, refining… I think you will like this book if you are able to make time to read it one day.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Characters who finish one another’s sentences? Well that’s nothing short of adorable. Your description of this book makes it sound like nothing I’ve ever read before in the genre of ficiton. You had me chuckling at, “Redemption was portrayed as a collective task—dare I say it?—the work of unity and relationship.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes… Always linking back to that, aren’t I? It is quite a unique work and that is why I enjoyed it so much, though of course at the same time I felt it hit all the points a novel should. Like so many great works of art, I found it to be quite uniquely classical. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it, Ka!

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  4. OOO, Thanks Michael! Sounds like a terrific read! Your review of this book only adds to its potential yumminess for me. We have a great library right on campus in the large dorm. I’ve got a library card to the BIG metro library in Eugene and have not used it once yet, as I’ve kept myself in reading material here at home. Only thing is, I haven’t found any publications more recent than the early 90s, so doubtful that this title will show up on my “local” library shelves — unless Lincoln or Saunders decides to bring it through from the Bardo. I wouldn’t completely rule out a possibility such as that in times like these but you may have just given me a really good reason to initiate my public library card. Blessings to you and big hugs, Alia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alia,

      May be time to try out the big library in Eugene! I’d be surprised if they didn’t have it. I hope you enjoy and I’m glad you enjoyed the review also. I have very fond memories of going to the big public library downtown when I was a child. In Birmingham, AL the library was pretty new I think, and it had a big glass pyramid on top so it was full of light. It was a great place to explore.

      Peace!
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, our library in Eugene is also relatively new. It has a floor dedicated to “projects”. Cardholders can bring their craft or photo or digital projects and make copies, use the 3D printer, transfer audio tapes onto digital formats — all for free! amazing service! Thanks for reminding me about this book. Truthfully, I had forgotten. blessings, Alia

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hi David,

      I hope you enjoy it. I think the list is long for all of us! There’s so much interesting writing in the world to explore. Saunders is one of my favorites, though. For me he has one of those real unique voices…

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says

    Sounds like great writing. With “quick flecks of prose that struck like the tongue of a benevolent snake” and ” linguistic dexterity.” I may just need to order this. Wonderful review! I only hope I will have the wits to follow it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mary,

      I really enjoyed it. It took a little while to get the hang of the way he structured the books, with no one narrator and all these voices piled together, but after fifty or so pages it just seemed to flow easily for me. And the story was really creative, too. I hope you enjoy it, too!

      With Love
      Michael

      Like

  6. What a great review Michael… I don’t suppose you would like to read my book and write a review about it?
    So you are my next featured blogger next Monday 1st may. writing about your feelings on compassion and show cases your book and yourself… could you arrange to send me it all by Saturday so I have time to present it. Thanks, love Barbara x

    Liked by 1 person

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