Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


Jill's take on Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I had been hearing gobs about Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for a while before picking up the book. I even watched a weird "book talk" with him on some PBS special at the Miami Book Fair. So let's just say my interest in the book was high when we found ourselves at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon and thus it came into our possession. To be honest, we went on a bit of a book binge at Powell's and so far I am certainly glad we did.

I have to admit that I did not immediately love Lincoln in the Bardo. I found it difficult to get into the format and style of the book. The way Saunders credits the dialog to his characters is more like a play than a "normal" novel. Then he peppers in some historical references (both real and fake) and it all just sort of had me feeling like it was trying too hard.

But then I adjusted and gave up caring about the references and format and allowed myself to simply enjoy the tale being told. And with a crack and a bang I was in love.

It is not hyperbole to say that I felt different when I was reading this book. As though a certain magic is possible and that there's so much more in the world than I can even begin to see and understand. That there are decisions to be made once life passes from us that have consequences as well. 

Now, I don't really know how much of this story is true, how much is made up and anything in between. And honestly, I don't care. A woman sitting on the plane next to me asked how I liked the book and she was saying she's not sure she can read it because she tends to be a stickler for historical fact. I mentioned I thought that might prove an issue for her, or she can just let go and think Saunders was using an historical moment as the basis for his book and everything else is just fiction. That didn't change her mind and though I told her how magical I found the language and enthralling the plot, she just couldn't see herself being able to suspend her disbelief. 

In a different interview I heard with Saunders, he was answering the question (paraphrased) of whether or not the combo of historical fact and fiction added up to this book feeling like fake news and lies. He handled the question well, and said something like, the book is firmly in fiction though with bits of fact strewn throughout. That doesn't make the facts any less true and the fiction any less fictitious. He was then asked if he has heard from Lincoln scholars such as Doris Kearns Goodwin (whom I love) and he said no he had not. He suspected she had not read the book or if so, didn't feel it needed comment on the realness of Saunders' Lincoln.

I loved this book so much I went back and started reading it right after I finished. I have never done this with a book before and I have to say, I read things that I totally missed the first time. I was only able to make it through a small portion of the book the second time before it was snatched away by Zac. I guess he was just anxious to read it after hearing me talk about it. So do yourselves a favor and run out and get a copy today. 

Zac's take on Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo, how do I love thee? There are so many ways and reasons that I won’t forget this novel for a long long time to come. 

It’s dense but not nearly impenetrable. The format is much like a stage play, which I would love to see. The people speaking in the novel are cited after they’ve said something. That’s the first key to breaking this down. Because once you crack it open with the key, the treasures just keep pouring forth.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place during the civil war, but in the shadowy afterlife where spirits linger and haunt. It’s a complete world, a confused and unhappy place that is not bound at all by the normal rules of the physical world.

And I think that right here is what makes the novel stand out and makes me love it so much. It too isn’t bound by the previous rules of a novel. 

There are characters who are narrating and retelling stories that have happened and quoting other characters who are standing right there. Or are embedded in a wall, or twisted up in a black iron fence at the perimeter of the cemetery. They have stumps for hands, they have no mouths, they have many eyes, they are afflicted with whatever obsessed or injured them in the physical world.

It’s a totally new way of writing that isn’t bound by the past, although it is tied to it. Just like us living souls. We are tied to material things and that tie sometimes transfers to the afterlife.

The crux of the story is the passing of Willie Lincoln and how his father Abe comes to visit him in the bardo. But it’s about so much more. It’s about longing and love and obsession and friendship and why we stay or why we leave. It’s about the powers that bind us - to a place, to one another, to an idea.