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Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

af George Saunders

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5,7763281,709 (3.94)506
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state, called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul.… (mere)
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"Lincoln in the Bardo" covers approximately the first 24 hours after the burial of Willie Lincoln, the president’s third son, from typhoid fever. Upon his death, Willie enters a “bardo,” a Buddhist state between your earthly life and your next reincarnation. Willie's body is placed in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, a place full of dead souls who won’t admit to themselves that they’re dead and fear moving onto their next plane whether that be heaven or hell. Willie’s eventual realization that he’s dead and that he should move on from the bardo is facilitated by three ghosts — Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and The Reverend Everly Thomas. These ghosts act as narrators of the novel, although narrators probably isn't the right word.

The novel is split unevenly between brief chapters of historical quotations that give a glimpse into the depth of the Lincolns’ grief over the death of Willie, the fact that a state dinner was being held at the White House on the night of Willie’s death, and the growing carnage of the Civil War, and Willie’s time in the bardo alongside its many other inhabitants. This second portion of the novel, is its majority, is rendered like the dialogue of a play, where different ghosts show up and tell their stories or comment on the action with Bevins, Vollman, and Thomas being the main participants. These ghosts form a goofy parade of lost souls, each inflamed by the injustice of no longer being alive and eager to tell his or her story.

The book ends with President Lincoln leaving the cemetery with the resolve that the Civil War must be won what ever the human costs meaning that Willie’s death in a way represents all of the young soldiers who have and will die.

As you might expect this is quite an odd book at times amusing at others quite touching but I also found it a bit of a mixed experience. I felt that the most effective parts are when we see President Lincoln grieving over his son but this is interspersed with a lot snappy dialogue that whilst it reads quickly seems to take a long time to to get anywhere. This is my first experience of George Saunders works but I will certainly be on the outlook for more. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Mar 1, 2024 |
The ghosts that hang around their graves in a Washington, D.C. cemetery in the year 1862 don't believe they're dead. They choose to believe they are on pause, their "sick forms" lying in their "sick boxes" in an unfortunate temporary condition. Quite the refusal to face facts, but they each have their reasons for desperately clinging to the earthly plane, the usual mix of regrets, materialist obsessions, and fear (more on that last in a bit). They are alternately hilarious, sincere, tragic, and offensive; always entertaining.

The historical circumstances of the death of Willie Lincoln in the first year of the Civil War are well known. Here, the 11 year old's ghost is welcomed, and becomes a cemetery celebrity after President Lincoln returns the night following Willie's burial, to open Willie's sick box and cradle his son's body. This is seen as a sign to the lonely ghosts that those in that "other place" can still feel affection and love for them, that though they may feel abandoned their cause is not hopeless.

The novel shifts back and forth interestingly from this ghostly realm, into the mind of the grieving and self-doubting President, and to pages of quotes from historical primary sources. These quotes and their sources are largely made up by Saunders (two, however, are credited on the copyright page, so he has mixed in some actually existing research with his imagination), and they creatively illuminate the historical context, while also contradicting in places, as the viewpoints encountered in historical research will tend to do.

The plot's climax comes about due to an incomprehensible and cruel feature of this ghostly realm, this bardo - children's ghosts are not allowed the freedoms of the others, if they hang around the cemetery instead of passing on to the other side, and are quickly straitjacketed and tormented by the nonplussed souls of the damned. The ghosts don't understand this either, but feeling affection for Willie, a few battle to get him to choose "the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon", ie, passing on to the next realm.

This fate for ghostly children is one of a pair of ideas in the novel suggestive of a cruel God, one revolting to human reason. The other explains the fear of one of the ghosts, a Reverend when alive, who was shown the glory of the heavenly feast upon his death but then judged worthy of eternal damnation and shown a horrifying vision of hell awaiting him. He does not know what caused this judgement (Calvinism, I guess); fleeing it, he abides sympathetically in the cemetery.

It's an appalling theology added to an exceedingly empathetic and humanist novel, entertaining and creative and a fine Booker Prize winner. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
Where to start with George Saunders? You don't have to be a fan of the classic film "Truly, Madly, Deeply" to appreciate the humour of "Lincoln in the Bardo," but it helps. The plot of this story takes place in a cemetery in Washington, DC. Abraham Lincoln has lost his son Willie to infection. His son is buried in a tomb in the cemetery. Lincoln goes late at night to the cemetery to mourn his son. The cemetery is home to a number of the spirits of the departed seemingly in a hiatus on their way to heaven or hell. The spirits take pity on the dead child and try to help him connect with his still living father. They fail of course, but their compassion is addictive.

The spirits in turn narrate the story, and their stories, and Saunders amplifies the story with live accounts of Lincoln, his White House, and the death of his child. The spirits appear almost as a Greek Chorus to the immediate tragedy, if not the tragedy of the age, and the serial tragedies of American history including the divided society, slavery, the abuse of women, and political nihilism.

So many ghosts in the story bring to mind Hamlet, the Gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno, and the funny, funny stream of consciousness of Finnegan's Wake, or Joyce's great Ulysses monologues.

As with so many of Saunders' stories the prose soars. With the hopelessness of death comes the promise of re-birth and redemption. That goodness and brotherhood will somehow confound all the killing appears with the dawn. So plaintively in the background is the voice of William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." There is futility and there is hope. And there is layer upon layer of irony.

So much of this story seems to be built on the cult of the President, in this case a tired, sad man in whom the ghosts build their hopes for redemption even while he orders tens of thousands of Union youth to their early graves. He leaves the cemetery to resume the killing in the hopes of a brighter day. His "White House" is a sepulchre.

It may be too early to call this work a classic. I would and should read it a few more times first. ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
Strange and beautiful but ultimately perplexing. I may end up reading this again in the future. ( )
  monicaberger | Jan 22, 2024 |
Saw the author reading from his book earlier this week. What can I say? 2017 Man Booker prize winner . Well deserved. Congratulations!! Brilliant. Genre changing. Bravo! 5 stars ( )
  jemisonreads | Jan 22, 2024 |
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February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state, called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul.

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