By Peter McKenzie-Brown
This novel by American academic George Saunders received the Man Booker prize last year. And I should begin by saying that the reviews I have read – in The Guardian, the New York Times, and the Globe and Mail – are extremely positive. Lincoln in the Bardo received critical acclaim, and Time magazine named Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University, one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Personally, I found this avant-garde book a challenge to finish. These comments explain why, but also why it makes sense to persevere.
There are two things you need to know to understand this book. The first is that Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid in 1862, as the Civil War was raging and while his father was hosting a party downstairs in the White House. The second is the notion of the Bardo, which in Tibetan Buddhism is a transitional reality that people endure between death and rebirth. It is a concept which arose soon after Gautama Buddha’s death in 545 BC. The Bardo is an intermediate state between death and rebirth, and a central theme of one of the earliest Buddhist texts, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, he or she experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration. Just after death, the spirit has its clearest experiences of reality. Eventually in the Bardo, you have hallucinations and nightmares. For the lucky ones, it’s a place of transcendental insight. If that’s your experience, you may be reincarnated as an enlightened one.
As Saunders says in his copyright page, his book is “a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events and locales that figure into the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” The book takes countless forms. In effect, it’s a collage of comments, dialogues and opinions offered by spirits, ghosts and other spectres. The text looks a bit like the pages of a printed play – but a play in which the ghosts are those of loveless old men, abused women (most tragically, a “mulatto” woman, who had been frequently raped), racists and suicides. The apparitions in this book lived tragic lives or died tragic deaths, or both.
Many voices contribute to the narrative – especially a trio of voices consisting of a young gay man who killed himself after being rejected by his lover, an elderly reverend and a middle-aged printer killed in an accident before he could consummate his marriage to his young wife. There are moments of humour in this book, and there are also moments of tragic insight. At one point a character – I can’t remember which one – describes Willie Lincoln’s remains as “meat.” That’s crude but appropriate, I think, once the spark of life has left the body.
One of the novel’s conceits is that by occupying the same space, the spirits can experience dissolution of interpersonal boundaries, understanding and feeling sympathy for each other in a mystical way. Among the book’s restless phantoms are two who most closely resemble the story’s protagonists. Their names are Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III.
“When the ghost of the young Willie Lincoln appears in the Bardo, these two and sometimes their colleague, the Reverend Everly Thomas, attempt to liberate the boy’s spirit from existence in the Bardo” John Semley wrote in a Globe and Mail book review. “To do this, they must deliver the boy’s ghost to Lincoln himself, uniting the boy’s spectral death-form with his father’s physical body, as a way of easing his grief.”
Like damned souls out of Dante, spirits appear hideous deformities, physical analogues to their various moral failings, or the concerns that keep them tethered to the world of the living. A woman who can’t let go of her three daughters is oppressed by three glowing orbs. A miser has to “float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.”
In one of the concluding chapters, a mob of spirits enter Lincoln’s body as he strides through the cemetery. They wedge themselves into his mourning. And the experience proves fruitful in the odd sense that it deepens Lincoln’s sense of mourning. “He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness.” The notion, according to Semley, is “that sadness teaches us compassion, our misery making us more mindful of others.”
In the darkness of that cemetery, Lincoln realizes that his own grief has already been endured by tens of thousands of fathers and mothers across the country. On the one hand, he could give up; on the other, he could turn that sorrow into a renewed determination to bring the national crisis to conclusion. Finally, he realizes that “though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true….Whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks, this book is unusual and, given its plethora of voices, difficult to follow. After I’d finished the book and started to read the reviews, I downloaded the audiobook, which uses a different person to voice each of the book’s 166 different characters. I didn’t and won’t listen to the whole book, but I wish I had done it this way in the beginning.
* Buddha left no written texts behind. The many Buddhist documents attributed to him were composed after his death. Groups of monks kept them alive through chanting before scribes eventually put pen to paper and wrote them down.