Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Winner of the 2017 Man Booker   –   Reprint of October 3rd, 2017 Review

I decided to let the Man Booker jury select my reading in contemporary fiction for a while, since they appear to have come up with an interesting selection this year in their longlist. I don’t think art should win prizes, so I shouldn’t care who wins-but I guess I do. Book prize winners are understandably important to booksellers. Prizes sell books, longlist mentions not so much. I think all the writers who made the longlist should be considered “the winners”.

I’m starting with the book I’m guessing will win, George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo. This is a supernatural book. I’m thinking of Harold Bloom because I can imagine him acclaiming Lincoln in the Bardo as a channeling of American greatness in literature and in the distinctive religious sense that he calls American, a mystical slant of “there-ness” and literalism fused with the occult.

We are the society in which a religious press published an account of a boy who claimed he had visited heaven and come back to tell us about it. That book rocked as a bestseller in the religious market for many years before the boy admitted that he hadn’t been to heaven and the book was withdrawn. But the point I wanted to make is that Americans can take religion very literally. If heaven exists, then it’s reasonable to believe that it’s a concrete place that could be visited by people from earth who would then return and tell us about it. Most Americans also believe that angels are real. I may enjoy Rilke’s angels as metaphors but that’s not what they mean.

The Bardo is the Tibetan Buddhist name for the netherworld or limbo where souls reside after death but before they are reincarnated. It seems to be sort of a Beckett-like waiting area. That’s how I’m trying to understand it; conventional Newtonian space/time rules don’t necessarily apply there.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a 342-page prose poem. The page layout is more like you’d see for extended poetry rather than prose-the book reads fast-more like it’s the equivalent of 100 pages less of text. You’ll want to read it in sustained segments to retain the rhythm and the mood. That isn’t easy since the text is so emotionally freighted that it feels like taking an axe to your head that doesn’t kill you but considerably dents your skull. You can get used to that.

By coincidence, I’ve been reading the early writings, mostly magazine articles, of Mark Twain, which immerse you in the quotidian content of mid-nineteenth century America. I’ve also been re-watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. This is the same period as Saunders’ novel. I’m impressed with how well Lincoln in the Bardo captures the feeling of being in the era. With this qualification, no one in the 19th century could have understood this novel. Lincoln in the Bardo also passes the 20th century by. Lincoln in the Bardo is a breakthrough 21st century work of art and a permanent acquisition of American literature.

The live characters are placed at one remove from the story, mostly cited in poetic sequences of footnotes, both real, I suspect, and imagined. Those in the living world are also sometimes referred to by the souls in the Bardo. Those spirits resist, above all, the realization that they are dead. They refer to the living world as “that other place”. The “Lincoln” in the Bardo more likely refers to Willie Lincoln, the President and Mrs. Lincoln’s beloved son.

At the White House, the Lincolns decide to go through with an impressive reception despite their ailing son. Mrs. Lincoln had concluded that they couldn’t afford a long series of state dinners but could manage two or three large receptions at less cost. Their youngest son, Willie, is ill upstairs in an ornate bedroom and expected to recover. But Willie takes a turn for the worst and dies while the White House guests are partying downstairs. His body will be interred in a burial vault that is lent by a prominent Washington family. Lincoln in the Bardo is the only major American novel that I know that takes place mainly in a cemetery.

In the cemetery, the troubled deceased are inert in their “home places”, their graves, during the day. But at night their spirits roam the grounds of the cemetery, mostly restrained by its thick iron fence. Their denial of their deaths means they can’t move on to what’s “next”. What’s next is either Nothing, or Heaven, or Hell, or some unknown X.

In denial of their deaths, they are also in denial of their lives which they won’t acknowledge are over. If their lives were over, they would have to accept the full consequences of their mistakes, their pain, and even what they might have been but weren’t. There are awesome sequences in which the spirits transform into every potential they had in life but never fulfilled. The spirits also deform in body to match their spiritual state. Some grow multiple eyes and arms. Others increase or diminish in size. One depressed spirit is reduced to a thin gray line lying on the ground. Lincoln in the Bardo is harrowing American art.

There is also a mind-breaking tableau where Christ appears and judges the spirits, consigning some to heaven and some to hell. This is the American Apocalypse, and I can’t think of any other just comparison except the Biblical one.

The innocent spirit of Willie Lincoln is the focus of the Bardo. He has hope that his father will visit him again in his burial vault and, for that reason, he refuses to transcend out of the Bardo.

This has dire consequences. The Bardo is a kind of hell and the longer you refuse to acknowledge your mortality and move on, the worst the physical and mental torture, until you may not be able to leave at all but must remain, in perpetual despair. In Willie’s case, this takes the form of tendrils that slowly envelope his body and prevent him from moving.

We live in a marketing world of hyperbole, where every book is amazing and wonderful because someone wants to sell it. I even read that some aspects of this book were “humorous”. Does it sound humorous to you?? Let me try to rise above the over-praise which is like a layer in the atmosphere somewhat resembling smog.

I have rarely experienced such moving detail in the experience of mourning. I thought of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, his songs on the death of children, composed after he had lost his beloved child.

At the concluding pages of Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders raises his art to a spiritual plane, like an august requiem, that I didn’t realize he had in him, because I didn’t think any contemporary writer had it in them.