Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Feels like: Riding the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland and interacting with the ghosts.

Song pairing: “All The Time” by Bahamas

“Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead. Goodbye, I must now say goodbye to all of it.” 

For those of you who are already George Saunders aficionados: give me a moment to collect myself. Grant me the luxury of reasonable doubt that as a woman who is devoid of infatuation for dead white male presidents, I was hesitant to start a book entitled Lincoln in the Bardo. Nothing could have been less enthusing.

Thankfully, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I am smart enough to know that I’m an idiot. When my favorite book service, Powell’s Indiespensable, sent me a signed copy of Lincoln in the Bardo I knew I was going to sit down and read it no matter what–I had spent money on it. I had no choice. That’s where my brain goes.

Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Powell’s. For introducing me to one of my top five, maybe top three, books of all time. Moby Dick still pulls ahead, but that might be because it’s been with me for so long, taking up harbor in my mind. Ask me again in ten years. I know this book is going to age even better.

Broad plot: Lincoln loses his favorite son, Willie, to fever at the age of 11 amidst the surging loss of the dragging Civil War. While the nation loses all their sons, Lincoln grieves his by visiting the chamber tomb the night after the funeral and holding his dead son in his arms. Unbeknownst to him, the cemetery is populated by spirits who have no idea they’re dead, including his young son.

The novel is told through the perspective of these ghosts, who are not so much dead in coffins but “sick” in “sick boxes” waiting to get better and return to their former lives. They rehash their last moments on earth in a repetitive jumble, but cling to the earthly coil in a primal fear of moving on. George Saunders uses a prolific narrative structure, forming a novel around the cadence of wizened, witty and enormously indecent ghosts, Vollman and Bevins. Rehashing their death stories here would do a disservice to the first twenty pages of Lincoln in the Bardo, but suffice it to say that in Saunder’s graveyard, ghosts begin to take on elaborate forms symbolically mirroring the ways in which they died. Utter. Perfection.

Vollman and Bevins take us on a pilgrimage through the Civil War era cemetery, introducing us to a wide array of confused and comical characters, bringing levity and light into every instance of darkness or voyeurism in the novel. George Saunders uses the structure of his novel to compose a play in small parts, using only that which his characters observe, only that which can be said, to drive the novel forward though the murky waters of the human experience: each ghost takes an oar and rows to the time of their own story, and onto the next one, and onto the next one. The goal of the novel is to get us through to the other side: the moving on process is cleverly described by the ghosts as the “matterlightblooming” phenomenon, which evokes succinctly the sights and sounds of a spirit erupting and unfurling like a flower made of sheer light, before vanishing into the ether for final judgment in the beyond.

Every single second spent in this novel is like wading through an effervescent, temporal, dream-woven stream of consciousness, breast-stroking through iridescent fog while ghosts spirit you through the injustice of life. I feel like entire classes will be taught on this novel alone, and there’s enough packed into 340 pages to warrant it. The ghosts of African American slaves, the ghosts who are pushed to the corners of the cemetery and are segregated even in purgatory, discuss histories of rape, abuse, neglect and brutal uprising. Racist soldiers, white trash criminals, all manner of sins depicted in screaming color across the translucent bodies of ephemeral ghouls. But they all cling to the in between, telling their stories. Some semblance of shadowed life is better than none at all.

When I say I couldn’t put it down it’s because I literally couldn’t put it down. It’s so indefatigably readable.

Memorable Quotes of Female Ghosts in Bardo:

🍂”Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing.”🍂

🍁”What was done to her was: whatever anyone wished to do, and even if someone wished only slightly to do something to her, well, one could do it, it could be done, one did it, it was done, it was done.”🍁


(Feature photo from NPR)

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