Lincoln in the Bardo
By George Saunders
Let’s begin with what you really want to know about the critically praised Lincoln in the Bardo: will you like it? The answer is, Maybe. If you’re in the mood for something different, especially for historical fiction (though this really isn’t exactly a historical novel), if you like the portrait of a man and his son’s relationship, not to mention an era, painted as a jumbling of sad, funny, and horrific vignettes, then you may be the reader for this book. If not, you may want to move on to something else.
George Saunders takes readers back to the American Civil War, to the personal pain suffered by Lincoln grieving over the death of his cherished little boy, Willie (William Wallace, the third son of the Lincolns) to render an impression of the president, the times, and to a larger extent the foibles, follies, conceits, blindness, and prejudices of humankind in general. Lincoln and Willie serve as a beacon of hope as they illustrate the strength needed to love completely and the power of such a love to inspire and free even a cast of transitional spirits as motley as these of their delusions and fears.
These acts of acceptance and transformation transpire during one evening in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Here readers encounter a collection of spirits in sort of an anteroom to heaven or hell, the bardo, like the Tibetan way station on the journey to the next earthly life, or perhaps a Catholic purgatory, where you do penance before entry into heaven.
As a reader, you will have guides, three men well versed in the rules governing the bardo and the occupants of the Oak Hill station. And quite a trio they are: Hans Vollman, who spends his time nude with an of varying massiveness; Roger Bevins III, a gay suicide over unrequited love, who sprouts multiple eyes and appendages; and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who saw his fate, fled it, and wanders wondering how he erred during his self-proclaimed exemplary life. These three first meet Willie and then Lincoln and are struck and moved by the affection of father for son and versa. And when, so taken with the two, they fear Willie will resist leaving — as most always the very young, the innocent souls — depart quickly, to be near his father, and then face all the disappointment sure to follow.
While an interesting experimental approach and often illuminating (for instance, showing the compassion of Lincoln for those on both sides who have to be sacrificed for the preservation of an ideal), it may not be quite the grand reading experience many expect. You may wish to read excerpts before committing to the book. w/c