Book review: Lincoln In The Bardo

George Saunders’ debut novel has a grief-stricken Abe Lincoln crossing over from the land of the living in search of his dead son


George Saunders with his new release at a book signing in Florida. Photo: Johnny Louis
George Saunders with his new release at a book signing in Florida. Photo: Johnny Louis

All love comes with the promise of an ending. We constantly find ourselves fighting to preserve it, against the idea of losing it. Loss is the imperative and the final stage through which any love must pass and dissolve. But in the realm of the human condition, love witnesses its worst when one has to lose it to death. It leaves us bereft of all forms of control, negotiation, veil or justification. One is forced to submit to it and prepare for grief. But how does one gear up to face it at all? George Saunders’ debut novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, is focused on this very fundamental question, managing to reach its own artistic resolution.

A multiple-time winner of the National Magazine Award for fiction, O. Henry Award and World Fantasy Award, Saunders took almost two decades—after his first full-length collection of short stories, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline—to come up with his debut novel. Anyone with even the slightest idea of Saunders’ life would be able to gauge why it took him so long. When the book first came to me, I could see that a word in the title wasn’t in English. However, the “last” word wasn’t alien to me. Having studied reincarnation theories and past life regression for years, I knew what Bardo meant. And that was the moment of anagnorisis.

Through most of his 20s, Saunders thought of himself as an objectivist; later, however, he developed a great sense of aversion to it. It was only with the discovery of the most ancient form of Tibetan Buddhism that Saunders found his light. He and his wife, Paula, have both been followers of Nyingma Buddhism for a long time now. They live just outside Oneonta in New York, a city on a hill that has statues of the Buddha and coloured prayer flags strung in the woods.

Lincoln In The Bardo: By George Saunders, Bloomsbury, 348 pages, Rs599.
Lincoln In The Bardo: By George Saunders, Bloomsbury, 348 pages, Rs599.

In everything that I have read of Saunders, including the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Tenth Of December, I have invariably found a palpable taste for the morbid. His stories are almost always labyrinthine, winding through the dark and the absurdist plateaus of American lives and culture. Lincoln In The Bardo is no different in its depiction of the macabre, though stylistically and formally it stands out as a rare collage of voices.

The story opens with the death of Willie, the third son of the 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln; he’s laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery and the despair that follows is heartbreaking. Broken and shattered by grief, on that very February night in 1862, Lincoln finds himself visiting his son’s crypt to mourn in solitude and desperation. Hurtling through time and space, Lincoln somehow finds a way to cross the physical realm of the living and discovers his son suspended between two worlds, while he’s still in the process of crossing over. For this place, Saunders uses the word Bardo. Tibetan in origin and one of the cornerstones of religious enquiry in Buddhism, Bardo is the space between physics and metaphysics, between two lives where one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, and where the soul experiences a variety of phenomena.

Willie is in a similar netherworld, accompanied by a motley group of ghoulish creatures and spirits, all of them still clinging on to their earthly lives, existences, their individual stories and possessions. It’s a Dantesque passage through a liminal state where some are keen on helping Willie move through the Bardo to the next level of consciousness, while some others view Willie and his father’s suspended encounter with hope, as a way of getting in touch with their loved ones and going back to their previous lives.

Among them are people like Roger Bevins III, who commits suicide by slashing his wrists when he is rejected by a lover, and then there’s Hans Vollman, a 46-year-old printer who dies shortly after marrying a young woman whom he struggles to make love to. Both of them help young Willie cross over and make sure that he’s not left suspended in the Bardo.

The suspension in the book, however, is not just limited to Willie’s soul in the Bardo; it also leaves the whole of history hanging. After all, it’s the peak of civil war in 1862, and Lincoln’s political career depends on a decision he must make that should eventually bring the war to a halt. The novel finally is about the complex nature of personal grief and how it not only affects a family, but also consequently changes the course of history.

Through his debut novel, Saunders brilliantly unfurls an age-old existential postulate into a grand narrative: how the essential nature of life is nothing but grave. How that heaviness affects all of us equally. And how the same heaviness ends up becoming the blueprint of a national history. Weaving through supernatural worlds, philosophical realities, familial and personal tragedies, and wartime days, Saunders spins a saga of colossal sadness that each of us must go through, not just to accept its inevitability, but also to find the deeper and greater meaning of life that death leaves behind.

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