It is unusual for me to read a book of this type (mainstream fiction, well-publicized, unusual structure) in close proximity to its initial release. This just isn’t my genre. However, I kept hearing so much about Lincoln in the Bardo in my various podcasts that my curiosity was piqued and I had to look. I did see many reviews that the structure of the book was unusual enough to make the audiobook hard to understand if one didn’t know what was going on already in the plot. I went the hardback route. The purchased hardback route. (Is the phrase “curiosity killed the bank account” a thing? It could be.)
The chapters alternate in style. One style is a plot told in clipped segments from various historical accounts, both from real and fictional sources. This plot follows accounts of President and Mary Lincoln hosting a banquet, reacting to their son’s illness, the events after Willie’s death, and how people responded to Lincoln as president. The other chapters are back and forth dialogue or commentary from ghosts in a graveyard. These are the inhabitants of the bardo– a location in Tibetan Buddhism that is the in-between of life and rebirth. The bardo of the book is not a place of unknowing, but rather a place of unacceptable. The ghosts grapple with what they are, where they are, and what their choices might be. To pull in another in-between place, they are actually in control of their limbo state, though most refuse that situational awareness.
George Saunders said the idea for the book came to him when he heard an account of Lincoln going to the crypt to visit the body of his son. From that concept grew a book that wrestles with what it means to grieve for what might have been, to acknowledge the present as a reality and the future as possibility, and how possibility is terrifying when it means yielding to an unknown. There is much that is unknown within this book and the power of the absence of confidence underscores the decisions of the majority of the characters.
Even those whose confidence defined their “before” are hesitant in their present. The narrative grapples with the classism and racism that are still present within the ghosts. Death has not been a great equalizer, but still remains a divider that the ghosts of white people expect to remain in the place. The ghosts of the enslaved black Americans and African Americans are more able to comprehend that the divisions are arbitrary and meaningless to those who corporeal form is shaped air.
The ghosts are deeply moved by the President’s visit to Willie’s crypt. However, they do not want Willie’s ghost to linger. There is something that happens to the ghosts of children if they remain- a kind of corruption. It is as though a loss of innocence will occur the longer one remains in one place- whether alive or dead. It is better for children to move on to what comes next, that they may continue in peace. The goal of some of the ghosts is to get Willie to move on to the next thing.
As the ghosts do their thing, they meditate on who they were.
Strange, isn’t it? To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors utterly forgotten? – Lawrence T. Decroix
The meditations of the ghosts cause the reader to do the same- reflecting on how one spends one’s time and what one expects to be one’s legacy. (“What is a legacy?” Hat tip to Hamilton.)
One of the most profound mental pictures of the book happens when the ghost of Willie Lincoln draws close to his father.
By making to sit in his father’s lap. – Hans Vollman
As he must often have done in that previous place. – Roger Bevins III
Seated one inside the other now; they occupied the same physical space, the child a contained version of the man. – Hans Vollman
The paragraph above gives a sense of the structure of the book. That last sentence- it is more that a description of a spirit inhabiting the same physical space as a body, but about the nature of what it means to have possibility within us. The possibilities of which we will avail ourselves, known and unknown, and the possibilities that will fall by the wayside as choices that went unchosen.
Despite the seemingly heavy content, I found this to be a fairly smooth read and quick as well. It is easily a “one more chapter” book that leads to some bit of work or sleep going undone. I look forward to discussing with someone (anyone!) to ponder what I missed that stood out to them.