Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders
343 pgs

On February 20, 1862, approximately one year into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died from a typhoid-like disease. Willie’s death left Mary Todd inconsolable and sent her into mourning for a year. Abraham Lincoln likewise was mourning the loss of his son, but with the country in crisis, had to spend his days dealing with the war and trying to save the country. But at night, Lincoln would make trips to the Georgetown cemetery where his son was interred and remove his son’s body from its crypt and hold it.

In Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders borrows from the Tibetan Buddhist concept of where a soul goes immediately following death, before it moves on to whatever comes next. The Tibetans refer to that state as the bardo, and Saunders places young Willie there and uses him, along with an assortment of other disembodied souls to describe Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery and to tell his emotional story.

Most of the book reads like a movie script. Instead of a traditional narrative, Saunders alternates between the dialogue of his assortment of characters and a collection of historical facts and semi-facts, which he pulled from books and news accounts of events around that time. This unique method makes the book a very quick read, and I think it accomplished what Saunders set out to do by using it. But at times I found it tedious and burdensome to my reading of the book. I was continually tempted to overlook who was speaking as I wanted to read through the dialogue quickly and I had to force myself to keep track of the character speaking.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a pretty good book. But it’s not the great book I was expecting it to be when I bought it. Maybe my expectations were too high. I had heard of George Saunders and new of his acclaim as a short-fiction writer and was expecting this book to be right up there with the best I had read in a while. And at times, it was very good. Those times were usually when Saunders focused on Lincoln and the emotions and thoughts he was working through. At other times the book languishes and gets sidetracked with the side stories of the other souls waiting to move on.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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