By Chet Yarbrough
Lincoln in the Bardo
By: George Saunders
Narrated by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, and others
GEORGE SAUNDERS (American writer, winner of many awards including Booker Prize and National Bood Award for Fiction.)
The New York Times gives high praise to George Saunders’ book, “Tenth of December”. There are reviewers that disagree with Kakutani’ and Cowles’ laudatory comments about Saunders’ book of short stories but once a listener steps on the cracked ice of “Tenth of December’s” last story, he/she becomes a Saunders’ fan.
Saunders seduces a listener with simple phrasing–pulling one into a story and then ambushing the unwary with crystal clear insight to human foibles, self-delusions, and false dependencies. Saunders sees that measuring one’s success by possessions defines you as an inanity, an empty symbol of humanity. What we do; not just what we think is what we become.
Like “Tenth of December”, George Saunders surprises with a new way of looking at ourselves– where we have been, and where we are going. Lincoln in the Bardo reflects on a Tibetan Buddhist belief in a “…state of existence between death and rebirth”.
A host of humanity is represented by voices of famous and not-so-famous actors. They assume the roles of rich, poor, educated, and unschooled Americans living and dying during the Civil War. The two major characters are Willie (Lincoln’s dying son) and the great man himself. The ugliness of discrimination, the desire for freedom, and the trials of living are embodied in Saunders’ netherworld.
Willie Lincoln (Third son of Abraham Lincoln.
As Willie nears death from typhoid fever, listeners are introduced to a Bardo civilization.
It is a community of disparate characters who believe they are alive but must, for unknown reason, return to their “sick boxes” (graves) every night.
In the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the idea of a sick box when a man in his forties marries a woman of 18. It seems unclear why such a marriage should take place. But the reader/listener hears a confession of the groom that he would be a companion, rather than a conjugal partner, of his new wife. As their relationship progresses, the young woman expresses her desire to consummate the marriage. On the day of the intended consummation, the husband is struck dead by a falling beam.
Saunders leaves the story of the struck groom and introduces many voices that reflect on the mood and experience of America during the Civil War. You hear from people who lived lives as slaves, merchants, politicians, miscreants, preachers, prostitutes, and soldiers. Some are rich; some are poor. All exist in the Bardo. A common understanding among these characters is that they are alive but constrained from acting on the natural world around them.
In one sense, many of these people remind one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” in which hell is described as eternal life with other people you cannot stand. However, the Bardo is not hell.
The Bardo seems a place between heaven and hell. Something is keeping people from leaving the Bardo. Willie is the key to the door by which one may leave.
As history records, Willie dies. Willie is the first to tell those in the Bardo that he, as well as they, are dead. Willie found he was dead by entering his father’s mind. After dying, Willie hears of his death in the grief of his father. Willie explains the truth to all those who did not know they were dead.
Those who live in the Bardo cannot leave until they recognize they are dead. In that recognition, they can leave but they do not know whether it will be to heaven, hell, or (in the Hindu sense) some form of reincarnation.
The beauty of Saunders creativity is expressed by his creation of a nether world of lives who have an ability to occupy the minds of those still living. The occupation of the living is more as receiver than transmitter of information. It offers a literary tool for reading the mind of historic figures. It also presents the idea of lost historic figures, friends, or family influencing the living.
Lincoln and his wife are devastated by Willie’s death. Lincoln is consumed by early failures of the Civil War which occupy his mind as Willie nears death.
However, Lincoln’s desire for unifying the country is unbent by the tragedy of his son’s passing. In a return to the cemetery, Lincoln is riven with remorse over the death of Willie. Willie enters Lincoln’s living body and realizes his father is grieving for him. Willie realizes he is dead.
The consequence of being a receiver in the Bardo, rather than transmitter of action or information. is that those in the nether world cannot reliably change the livings’ thoughts or actions. There is a hint in Saunders’ story that there is a chance of a Bardo resident changing a living person’s mind, but it is only a slim chance. This is made clear by a Mulatto woman who has been beaten, raped, and murdered by many men. She desires revenge and chooses to remain in the Bardo to accomplish that end.
Living in the Bardo is not necessarily unpleasant because it is like living in the world except you must return to your sick box every night. The possibility of affecting the real world’s direction, though slim, still offers some appeal to Bardo residents.
Some flee the idea of knowing they are dead because of the choice that must be made once they acknowledge their death. All who acknowledge their death must weigh the risk of heaven, hell, or (in Hindu belief) reincarnation. If they choose to stay in the Bardo the only negative is having to return to their sick box every night. Otherwise, life in the Bardo is like living in the world except for a limited effect you have on the world you have left.
Many ideas are exercised in Saunders’ creative story. An insight plainly explained by Saunders is in many quotes produced from other books about Lincoln. Saunders shows how facts of history change based on a writer’s perception of histories events, places, and people.
In Saunders’ creative mind, there is life after death in the Bardo. He opens a door to heaven, hell, or reincarnation. On the other hand, Saunders may be wrong. Death may just be death.