Sunday, June 3, 2018

Just finished reading...

...the 2017 experimental novel LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders.

Writer George Saunders is a well known, celebrated short story writer but this is his first full-length novel. And while it was indeed engaging, moving, and thought provoking, it ended up feeling like a short story.

Perhaps it is the fact that the story itself takes place over the course of a single day. Or perhaps it is due to the enormous amount of white space on the pages as the story is told through excerpts from books (some actual historical books or biographies and some fabricated by Saunders), letters, and spoken monologues from the various characters and players in the story. The structure of these excerpts looks like a stage script with lots of room between the "lines."

But this is just an observation as it does not diminish the story itself or reduce the power of the ideas that Saunders is working with. The novel concerns itself with the death of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's eleven-year old son Willie Lincoln from typhoid fever. There are accounts of his short life and death as well as the extreme grief that both Mary and Abe suffered at the loss of their son. But this story takes a different, metaphysical perspective on these historical events by following Willie after his death into what Saunders calls "the bardo." The term bardo comes from Tibetan Buddhism and is an intermediate state the soul must traverse between death and rebirth. But Saunders takes liberties with his bardo, mixing Christian and Egyptian beliefs and iconography into the Tibetan Buddhist idea of an afterlife, or between-life as it were.

This device allows the author to explore the thoughts and actions of all the souls who occupy this bardo with little Willie. We are introduced to people from many different backgrounds and walks of life, male and female, white and black, straight and gay, noble and base. And it allows us to experience a kaleidoscope of social, religious, and political points of view, particularly about slavery and the coming Civil War. But at the heart of this loss is President Lincoln who actually went many times to the crypt where Willie lay in his small coffin to visit him and hold his body, to try to make sense of the loss. And we encounter him in this story, weeping over Willie's body, unable to comprehend what has transpired.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is an enigmatic novel while, curiously, being fairly straight-forward. The bardo is rendered quite vividly here and the details Saunders peppers in are quite disturbing. I have read THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD and while the English translation has some known and documented translation issues (due to the lack of knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism on the part of the translator!), the general sense is one of a place where the soul goes through a series of trials, and depending upon how one lived one's life, one passes or fails these trials. But Saunders' bardo is actually quite a cruel, twisted place, not full of trials but seemingly endless suffering and enslavement. It disturbed me so much that I actually had to put the book down at one point before steeling myself to go on. And I am glad I did because Saunders' ultimate idea of this bardo is that it is one of our own making, and one we stay in of our own choosing. There is some comfort in the idea that there is not an objective cruelty infecting the universe, but instead there is a subjective pain that comes from our own perception. And what could be more Buddhist than that?

History, war, slavery, the state of childhood, the state of grief, theology, love, courage, anger, psychology, sexuality, spirituality... As you can see, this is a layered, complex story neatly packed into a relatively short read.

Recommend? Yes, give it a try. No need at all to be a history buff, or a devotee of Buddhism. And if you end up not liking it, no worries, it's a quick read.

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