Friday, January 18, 2019

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo is a book you won't soon forget after reading. It takes place at the crypt in Washington, DC where Abraham Lincoln's 11-year old son Willie was taken after dying of typhoid fever in 1862. Lincoln went there at night to hold the body right after the funeral.

The story is one day at that crypt, which unbeknownst to Lincoln is full of spirits in the bardo, or Buddhist space between death and rebirth. There is no traditional narrative, but rather dialogue between the spirits (lots of them from all walks of life) as well as excerpts of both real and fictional histories of the time. Your understanding of their plight expands as the novel goes on, and you see how they have not accepted their own deaths. In ways you will have to read to understand, both Lincolns have a huge impact on these suffering souls. It is somehow both a surreal and very human story (years ago I read Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, one of the strangest things I've read, yet also so funny).

Suffering is at the core of the novel, how we all suffer, and how that affects our own actions. Ultimately, too, it is about how we cannot let suffering cripple us. Lincoln needed to save a country. The spirits squabble with each other and live in suffering denial, thinking their coffins are only "sick-boxes" and hoping in vain they might return.


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