Thursday, April 19, 2018
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Having never loved or been loved in that previous place, they were frozen here in a youthful state of perpetual emotional vacuity; interested only in freedom, profligacy, and high-jinks, railing against any limitation or commitment whatsoever.
~from. p. 118, description of three young male ghosts
Well, what of it.
No one who has ever done anything worth doing has gone uncriticized. As regards the matter at hand (as regards him), I am, at least, above any--
Thus thought Mr. Lincoln.
But then his (our) eyes shut, in a slow remembering sorrow-wince.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a tale of life and death, ghosts and letting go. Willie Lincoln has just died and his father has taken him out of what the ghosts in the bardo call his "sick box" (his coffin). In his grief, President Lincoln attempts to will his son back to life. Now, Willie's trapped between life and whatever comes next. I had to look up the word "bardo" and found that it's a Buddhist term for the place between death and the next life. I'm not sure that's how Saunders uses the term. It feels more like a place to avoid heaven or hell, one in which it requires some effort to stay or into which one is thrown when someone refuses to let go (as in Willie's case).
I've heard people describe Lincoln in the Bardo as "weird, really weird" and that's true. It's certainly offbeat and unusual. But, Saunders is pretty much the King of Weird, in my opinion. His imagination is boundless, his use of the English language masterful, his storytelling strong, his use of metaphor mind-boggling (I'm thinking mostly of his other work when referring to metaphor), and his characterization beyond reproach. So, while the story may be an odd one, I always got the sense that Saunders knew exactly where he was taking the reader and why -- and he did it with flair.
Those last few pages definitely make it clear what the author was trying to say in his unique way: Life is grand, enjoy it while you can.
Highly recommended - I gave Lincoln in the Bardo 4 out of 5 stars because it was not a book that grabbed me and held on, but I can't take off more than a point. The writing is so skillful that it's hard to criticize anything about Lincoln in the Bardo beyond saying that it's weird and jumpy. If only for the fact that Saunders set his story in a place that required the creation of dozens of different voices, you have to admire the craftsmanship involved.
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