This is one of those novels which it felt like everyone was talking about. And then it seemed as though everyone was talking about the audiobook. There are lots of reasons why this is; George Saunders is a celebrated short story writer but Lincoln In The Bardo is his first novel, then there’s the book’s subject, the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie Lincoln, a haunting episode within America’s history. These would probably have been enough to draw my attention, but the audiobook has broken records in terms of the size of its cast, with 166 participants, making it more akin to a film or radio play rather than a novel. Since my adventures with Audible began a few months ago, I have really enjoyed re-experiencing the joy of being read to, but Lincoln in the Bardo is the first book that I truly felt more suited to audio rather than print format. While I picked up the book in a shop and leafed through it, it felt somehow ‘less’ than the disorientating and kaleidoscopic experience of the audiobook. Lincoln in the Bardo is one of those truly unique experiences that leaves you feeling speechless afterwards, it takes a hold and I wandered through my life with headphones in, possessed by this chorus of voices demanding to be heard.
The word ‘Bardo’ is a Buddhist term referring to the intermediate state between life and death when the soul is not connected to a body. Accordingly, the novel is set in Oak Hill cemetery, where young Willie Lincoln has been taken to lie in a marble crypt – he is the Lincoln who is trapped in the Bardo, unable to return. It is a matter of historical record that on at least two occasions, President Lincoln visited the crypt and wept over the boy’s body. Indeed, historical record is a huge part of Saunders’ novel with contemporary observers being quoted at length about the lavish state banquet being thrown as Willie grew ill, how President and Mrs Lincoln decided to go ahead with it, how the boy grew weaker and finally died while the revellers enjoyed themselves downstairs, the evening a great success. The parents’ grief, the heart-breaking chemical process as young Willie was prepared for the grave – there are so many moments within Lincoln in the Bardo which have the power to take one’s breath away, this long-gone grief rendered horribly close.
Yet still, the heart of the novel’s action is in the Bardo of Oak Hill where a teeming host of spirits linger, unable for a variety of reasons to complete their journey. I read that Saunders stated that he had chosen the word Bardo so that readers did not come to the novel with the usual expectations of the Christian depiction of the afterlife and indeed, these are characters who feel a long way away from God. The main trio are Hans Vollman, a middle-aged printer who was hit in the head shortly before the intended consummation of his marriage to his young wife, Roger Bevins III, a young man who suffered from a certain proclivity and who attempted to end his own life after his lover declared his intention to cease his own proclivity and live decently, and then the elderly Reverend Everly Thomas who seems far more aware of his surroundings than the others. Vollman, played with gusto by Nick Offerman, declares that he is in his ‘sick-box’ awaiting recovery when he can return home to his wife, while Bevins explains that having changed his mind about suicide part way through the act, he is now awaiting discovery and assistance by his family on the floor in his home. Bevins is voiced by David Sedaris and the inflection in his voice as he recalls the realisation of how beautiful life truly is – it brought yet more tears. The reader can see what they are not ready to accept – it is far too late.
Long-standing inmates of Oak Hill, these three men know that the young ‘are not supposed to tarry’, that they must go to ‘the next place’. While one’s actions on earth will influence one’s physical form in death (Vollman has an engorged member, Bevins is a mass of limbs), the children who attempt to remain in the Bardo are doomed to a very dark measure of half-existence full of hideous and painful growths. The trio recall the fate of Miss Traynor who has become a ‘girl-sized crow’ and determine to try to save Willie from a similar fate. Willie is the heart of the story – it is his father’s grief for him which binds him to the earth, he is the ‘little Prince of America’, he is ‘sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children’. We watch his spirit run towards his father, expecting the customary embrace but the President walks past, unable to see him. The tragedy of these two people who love each other so dearly, miss one another so keenly but forever separated – tears, again. Standing aside, the watching spirits are fascinated to see the father’s love for his child, his embrace of Willie’s body, amazed to see one like themselves being ‘touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still —’
Despite being a full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo still does have certain attributes of Saunders’ past work in short fiction. As the spirits travel through the Bardo, we encounter other long-term inmates, each of whom have their own tale to tell, their own reason for stopping and waiting. There is Mrs Ellis, the mother preoccupied by her three daughters, the angry husband and wife (one of whom is voiced by Nick Offerman’s wife Megan Mullaly), the mute slave girl traumatised by repeated rapes – we are treated to a cacophony of human experience, of unlived opportunity, disappointment, unhappiness. One imagines Oak Hill cemetery and all of its tombs and gravestones – it is easy to forget that each one of them mark a life, a human story, and Lincoln in the Bardo reminds us that this is so. I remember when I was eighteen and visiting Washington with school, I stumbled across the grave of Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son Robert at Arlington – the only one of his children to live to adulthood. Having only ever heard of the President himself, I was startled to think of his wider family and what their loss must have been – learning that three of their four children died in childhood or early adulthood, it suddenly became far less peculiar that Mary Todd Lincoln had so many mental health issues.
Saunders seems hesitant to draw his own version of Lincoln too clearly, relying far more on the words of others with lengthy passages of primary and secondary sources peppering the novel. Still, through so doing offering a version of the man markedly different to that commonly shared in the modern day. Yet still, the very variety of voices point towards the difficulty of finding a final truth; there is even disagreement over whether the moon shone on a particular evening. When we cannot even agree on something as simple as that, how are we ever going to see to someone’s heart? The spirits who watch the tall man approach Willie Lincoln’s mausoleum have no idea that he is the President (Vollman and Bevins have not yet accepted that they are dead, let alone that enough time has passed to require a new president). They only know that he is young Willie’s father and his grief is tempered with guilt – guilt over the party, the boy’s death, the Civil War – the tall man is suffering and he must be made to return to his boy to say goodbye and to set him free.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a sorrowful book, with Saunders describing Lincoln as inclined ‘toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that 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’. These words stuck in my mind afterwards – they remained in my mind as I went to Australia, travelled around, saw people I had not seen since early childhood and then returned. The world is full of sorrow and though it may be hard to take a deep breath and set down one’s own burden to be kinder than one needs to be, how much harder would it be if we did anything else?
I read that Saunders had been many years in the planning of this novel and that he had long been caught by the image of Lincoln cradling the body of his son in the mausoleum. The image of the father in his grief is an incredibly poignant one – for me the moment of the novel that has lingered in my memory is the account given by the undertaker of how the President walked in on the child being embalmed in one of the downstairs rooms of the White House. The father was caught off guard and stepped away, leaving the undertaker unhappy that he could not have delivered Willie with the process completed, clothes put back on, so he might have looked almost alive again. The idea of that naked child on the table, of the father seeing his beloved boy so brutally displayed as departed – we can imagine the shock that must have jolted through him as he walked through the door.
Yet still, for all that there is sorrow and sadness, there is still an avenue of hope. Reverend Everly has far greater reason than the others to fear the next place, but yet still he is willing to set this aside to do the right thing. Saunders does not flinch away from the grief that the spirits suffered, from the injustice of lives cut far too short, but yet they still have the chance to choose courage. Through their encouragement, the President is encouraged to overcome his grief to become the true father to his people as well as his children and in these times of uncertainty, a novel such as this which exhorts us to be the best possible versions of ourselves feels more welcome than ever and all the more to be treasured. Each one of these characters feels worth remembering and Lincoln in the Bardo is a passionate and big-hearted celebration of all that it means to be human – a work of true art.
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Published by Random House Audio on February 14th 2017
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