“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

          He is just one.
          And the weight of it about to kills me.
          Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I —
          May not have the heart for it.
          What to do. Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing foot, king of indecision, laughing-stock for the ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout?
          It is out of control. Who is doing it. Who caused it. Whose arrival on the scene began it.
          What am I doing.
          What am I doing here.
          Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which – which went on. They could not hide how alive they were with it, with their happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.

31F17252-8662-49FF-ADCD-DC26070441AEI can’t even… I don’t know how… what to say? George Saunders has shattered boundaries and gleefully disregarded all rules of form. In this, a debut novel from a celebrated literary mogul, one gets the sense that this isn’t just Saunders’ first novel; this is a first in a new art form.

George Saunders has built upon the brief historical anecdote that Abraham Lincoln, upon the death of his beloved son Willie, visited the crypt alone the night of Willie’s interment. Saunders employs historical fact and a keen imagination to flesh out that wondrous night. “Lincoln in the Bardo” takes place in two simultaneous settings – the physical cemetery where Lincoln’s son Willie has just been buried and the ethereal bardo, the Buddhist equivalent of purgatory or limbo. The chapters are of two different structures, both unlike anything I’ve ever read. Saunders pieces together quotes and citations from historical accounts to compose half of the chapters, with no identifiable original writing to tie the quotes together. The other chapters are arranged almost as theater, filled with dialogue among various spirits haunting the bardo.

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With such physical separation, such visible patchwork, one would expect the effect of the book to be jarring and disjointed, but “Lincoln in the Bardo” is as smooth and carefully crafted as 1000 thread-count sheets. With breathtaking attention to detail and an inhuman thoroughness of research, Saunders tells his own story of that night, weaving fact and fiction together with astonishing grace.

By all accounts, Lincoln was visibly shaken by his son’s death, tormented by his loss and struggling to carry on.

“Around midnight I entered to ask if I could bring him something. The sight of him shocked me. His hair was wild, his face pale, with signs of recent tears plainly evident. I marveled at his agitated manner and wondered what might be the outcome if he did not find some relief. I had recently been to visit an iron-works in the state of Pennsylvania, where a steam-release valve had been demonstrated to me; the President’s state put me in mind of the necessity of such an apparatus.”

– In ‘Eyewitness to History: The Lincoln White House,’ edited by Stone Hilyard, account of D. Strumphort, butler

Lincoln flees the White House, stealing into the cemetery desperate to see his son once more. There, undetected by the living, we meet the spirits of the bardo, those who have not yet passed on to their final realm. Unaccustomed to witnessing such grief from and proximity to the living, the spirits are drawn to the strange figure of Mr. Lincoln. As he enters Willie’s crypt, our narrator-spirits can’t resist following him.

“The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and, with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap. … Sinking his head into the place between chin and neck, the gentleman sobbed raggedly at first, then unreservedly, giving full vent to his emotions.”

To say that “Lincoln in the Bardo” is extraordinary seems to me an understatement. It has staggering emotional depth. It is haunting and humorous. It shatters boundaries and boldly creates a form all its own. It is perfection.

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