February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state, called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul.
This novel takes a little patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual and an imagination that lets one see outside the norm. I though it was brilliant.
ARC from publisher.
Saunders uses two very different motifs to present a kaleidoscope of human failings from varying perspectives. On the one hand, he presents multiple voices from spirits who are trapped in the Oak Hill bardo. The cacophony they create presents a picture of just about every human frailty, including murder, suicide, rape, theft, prejudice, homophobia, etc., etc. They suffer from a host of bizarre deformities that represent their failings in life but have one thing in common; all are bitter and refuse to complete their journey to the afterlife until they settle old scores. This approach can be both dark and comical, but seems rambling and incoherent, lacking in the gravitas of similar works that use voices from the grave to explore similar themes (e.g., “Our Town,” “Spoon River Anthology”).
To achieve the needed gravitas, Saunders joins these slapstick graveyard antics with citations from scholarly works, both real and imagined. The latter create a more nuanced picture of Lincoln and the early Civil War period. His approach not only informs Lincoln’s life and times, but also provides insights into the complexity of peoples’ understanding of his motivations and mental state at the time.
Of course, the protagonist of the novel is Lincoln himself. Saunders employs two of the spirits, Roger Bevins III and Hans Vollman, as a clever way to explore Lincoln’s thinking about the war. Willie is tempted to stay in the bardo because his spirit has experienced his father’s profound grief. However, Bevins and Vollman know this would be a grave mistake and thus merge their spirits with Lincoln’s body to influence him to accept that Willie will never return. With this “mind meld,” we learn of Lincoln’s powerful realization about the only way he could conduct the war. “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow…toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.” Shockingly, Lincoln then concludes that “to do the maximum good,” he must “[k]ill more efficiently” and “cause more suffering.” As good cancer surgeons know, sometimes this is the only viable strategy.
If you've read anything about this book, you probably know that the Bardo is the place (space?) between life and death in the Buddhist religion. It's 1862, the Civil War is raging, and President Lincoln's 11-year old son Willie has just died following a devastating illness (most likely typhoid fever). The action takes place inside Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, where Willie's body has been laid to rest in the Carroll family mausoleum. The speakers in the novel--sometimes in conversation with one another, sometimes as individual narrators--are spirits who reject the fact that they have died and linger in this world due to to their attachments to and regrets made in life. They cannot even accept any words relating to death, referring instead to their caskets as "sick-boxes" and their dead bodies as "sick-forms." The speakers multiply in numbers as the story proceeds, each with his or her own story, but three in particular hold it together: Roger Bevins III, a young man who slit his wrists in despair, then changed his mind--too late to be saved; Hans Vollman, a businessman killed when a beam fell and struck him at his desk; and the Reverend Everly Thomas. These three feel a particular compassion for the youngest among them, including Willie Lincoln, who has just joined them in the Bardo. The spirits in the Bardo have the ability not only to observe but to pass through or enter into the living--including the grieving Lincoln, who keeps returning to his son's tomb. It is their desire to help him move beyond this loss, to help Willie to cross over, and to accept the mistakes and regrets of their own lives as well as the fact that they are far beyond "sick" themselves.
Interspersed with their stories and conversations are chapters consisting entirely of short quotations or excerpts from books, memoirs, and testimonies regarding the Lincolns and the period surrounding Willie's death. Each chapter focuses on one specific aspect: Lincoln's appearance, Willie's illness, the party held at the White House while Willie was in decline, the funeral procession, etc. Sanders has carefully laid out the excerpts in these chapters to demonstrate that what happens is not so much fact as a matter of perception. Some of the observers agree with one another while others present a totally different picture. In one, for example, various observers claim that Lincoln was the handsomest or ugliest man they had ever seen, had a most pleasant or most disagreeable countenance, was strong and well-built or gangly and ape-like, etc. The theme of perception--visual, emotional, and intellectual--plays into the stories of the spirits lingering in the Bardo as well.
It wasn't long before I was totally engaged with Lincoln in the Bardo. While it may not be the easiest read, it is definitely worth the effort required. This is one that will stick with me for quite some time, and I look forward to reading it again in hard copy.
Unfortunately, most of the speakers were people I didn't really care to know. The fact that they were dead and that characters would say other characters' lines for them served to create an air of aloofness that distanced me from the characters and story events. And frankly, some of the events were pretty darn corny, especially during the ending.
At least with all the white space on every page this is a quick read. I suppose there is something just in a story about ghosts being so airy and removed and insubstantial.
Saunders deploys his mastery of voice to imbue his principal shades, as well as those with lesser parts, with all the subtle linguistic charms to, virtually, bring them to life. And voice is pretty much all he’s got here, since almost the entire novel consists of dialogue. The remarkable feats of serial monologue that Saunders brings to his best short stories, are here multiplied into intricate choral lattices. All without losing the close interiority that is a hallmark of Saunders’ empathetic characterization. Grief and responsibility, both individual and national, will struggle throughout this very long, dark night. But what changes will be wrought, and will they be for good or ill?
Astonishingly good writing. Subtle, sympathetic, wistful, bawdy, wonderfully whimsical, and heart-wrenching. Saunders has convincingly demonstrated that he is just as inspiring in the long form as he is in the short form.
According to Wikipedia, Saunders is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children’s books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker as well as other magazines. He was born December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, TX, and he has won a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as several other awards. He lists his influences as Kurt Vonnegut, Pynchon, Flannery O’Conner, John Updike, and Steinbeck. He is a professor at Syracuse University.
The story begins casually enough with a man who marries a woman much younger than himself. On the day after his wedding, he goes to his office, and while seated at his desk, Saunders writes, “A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk. And so while our [honeymoon] must be deferred, while I recovered. Per the advice of my physician, I took to my-- // A sort of sick box was judged to be—hans vollman // Efficacious. roger bevins iii // Efficacious, yes, Thank you, friend. hans vollman // Always a pleasure. roger bevins iii” // There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor, the very parlor through which we had recently (gleefully, guiltily, her hand in mine) passed en route to her bedroom. Then the physician returned, and his assistant carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that—I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed” (5). As I am sure you are aware, hans is dead, as is roger blevins iii. The names appear on the page as if they are scripts for a film. The names of hans, roger, and all the inhabitants of the bardo are all in lower case with about an 8 point font. The rest of the novel involves conversations of more than forty deceased characters.
When willie appears in the bardo, the other souls try to reconnect him with his father who pays daily visits his tomb. They believe that a connection to Lincoln can save willie for a life in the bardo, so he won’t be taken away.
Most of the conversation takes place among, hans, bevins, and the reverend everly thomas. There are some characters who provide a tiny dab of humor. The barons use a stream of obscenities each time they talk, and thankfully, only the first and last letter of each word appears with a dash between them. Another character, actually corrects the grammar of the deceased.
Interspersed with the conversations of the deceased are the italicized thoughts of Abraham Lincoln as he agonizes over the way the Civil War is being conducted, as well as the death of his son willie.
The novel has 108 chapters, some with only a single line of text. Occasionally, Saunders places what appear to be newspaper, magazine articles, and quotes from works of history regarding Willie’s death and Lincoln’s presidency. This 343-page novel can be read in a single sitting.
This interesting novel, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a novel that will keep you in your chair to find out what happens next! 5 stars.
The story is set in Washington DC. President Lincoln had a son, Willie, who died of Scarlet Fever when he was in office. It is during the Civil War. There are a series of people who congregate in the cemetery and are there to see Willie laid to rest.
What the reader is aware of is that these people are all dead. They have all died in a variety of different time periods and their language reflects the era in which they died. There are quite a number and they are all involved in some seemingly supernatural fight for their lives.
The Bardo is a Buddhist term. It is the period after death and before rebirth when the soul is disconnected from the physical body and has a series of experiences. Willie and the rest of the individuals are in the Bardo.
The other inhabitants operate as a kind of chorus who keep the story moving and offer explanatory and expository information for the reader. A further interesting aspect the author uses is that he has researched contemporary commentary on how writers viewed many of the events depicted and has used those writings to show that any one event can be viewed and interpreted in a variety of ways.
And, since this is Twilight Zone material…..that is all I will say. Because, as in all good TZ episodes, the twist is always the best part of the story. Book clubs that really want to discuss allegory, theme, exposition and the meat and potatoes of writing will really enjoy discussing this book.
If your book club just wants to drink wine and touch on a book, I challenge you to give this one a go. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Five stars.
This is a tentative review based on the audiobook edition. I still intend to read "Lincoln in the Bardo" in print as well. I was curious to hear what a book narrated by 166 voices would be like and you may have guessed the answer... confusing.
I would not recommend listening to any of the audiobook editions unless you have a print/ebook copy to refer to and reference. At least that was my experience. I'd likely listen to the audio again once I've read the print edition to see if it is easier to follow.
Probably you should at least read a few reviews that explain the structure of the book so that you know what you are in for.
The actual narration performances were excellent but it was simply too difficult to follow what was going on most of the time and I found my mind wandering as the voices droned on and on, especially the ones reciting the real and the fake news quotes and all of the Ibids and Op cit.s.
And (getting back to the header) just because a bunch of characters in a frontier mining town TV series spoke in a continuous stream of obscenities I really can't imagine that folks in the same era in Washington D.C. (or its graveyards) spoke the same way (this seems to be confined to a short few bursts at the front end and then some extended sequences towards the back end though).
3 out of 5 is more along the lines of I "admired it" (for its inventiveness) rather than "liked it."
The action takes place in one night and is told in various voices in a stream of consciousness style. That style may turn off some readers, but for the adventurous reader, it's a marvelous treat that's both wildly imaginative and heartbreaking. Can an author known for his short stories write longer fiction? In this case, a resounding yes. I can't wait to listen to the multi-voiced audio version. 5 stars
readers: 166 narrators, including: [[Nick Offerman]], [[David Sedaris]], [[George Saunders]], [[Carrie Brownstein]], [[Don Cheadle]], [[Kat Dennings]], [[Lena Dunham]], [[Bill Hader]], [[Miranda July]], [[Mary Karr]]
format: Overdrive Audiobook, 7:25 (~200 pages)
listened: Oct 23-31
This is such an interesting complicated construction that one might hesitate to apply the word "novel" and that, despite having read several reviews, created for me an entirely unexpected experience.
Saunder’s novel is really different anything I've have read. So much so that characterizing it requires me to come up with some new descriptions and maybe new vocabulary. The book is about the graveyard where Willie Lincoln, son of American president Abraham Lincoln, was buried after his early death during the Lincoln presidency, of course, during the American Civil War, and during an elaborate party thrown by Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd in the White House. In the graveyard reside many of the ghosts of the bodies buried, and they welcome Willie in a quirky way that only makes sense within the context Saunders has created.
This world - there are rules and logic that flow and alter along with our image of ghosts themselves, but yet it holds together, it’s imaginative, crowded, complicated and quite fascinating. There are so many voices. This is part of the reason there are 166 narrators in the audio book - a production which deserves it’s own commentary. The voices are mixed with endless quotes about the Lincolns and about Willie, the party and his death from real sources - each source provided with its own unique narrator on audio. The interplay of these quotes and voices of the ghosts—they are really all ghosts, real and fictional—combine to create an atmospheric mixture of humanity, fantasy and grounded history, a feeling of fiction and, oddly that of a documentary. As I said, it’s unlike any other work of fiction that I have read.
Some thoughts on all this.
On wikipedia Saunders “Early life and education” is given this description:
Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas. He grew up near Chicago and graduated from Oak Forest High School in Oak Forest, Illinois. In 1981, he received a B.S. in geophysical engineering from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. Of his scientific background, Saunders has said, “…any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”
This says a lot about his fiction. But, let me a take a moment to note his degree. I have worked in Geophysics for almost 20 years, where I stumbled via a geology degree. Saunders is better trained to do what I do than I am.
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The books leave me with a fundamental question about all literature: did i enjoy this? This is an odd question in several ways, but notably because I was entertained the entire time I listened. I was always interested in the nature of the book and its atmosphere, and in the plot that flitters in and out and does manage to construct itself into plot—if perhaps a weak one, once filtered out from all the other stuff going on here. The thing is, it’s so modern, so like life today where in every beautiful man-made thing shows the cracks in the concrete and leaves you wondering whether you even like the concrete itself, or whatever material of construction. It’s not beautiful in the way fiction can be (or in the way we like to think nature can be). It’s very disappointing in how … hmm, I need a word for this… in how un-magical(?) it is.
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Easily five stars for effort and construction and audio. Minus one for leaving me the question just above
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A moment of appreciation on the audio - The creation of this audiobook with 166 different narrators, including Saunders, is a feet that deserves a moment of reflection. First of all, thank goodness I wasn’t the one coordinating all this. Second, it does work, and it’s quite special. It’s a book that should absolutely defy the audio presentation and yet this production almost solves that problem. Recommended with hesitation.
The incredible production of this audiobook, which was done with a large cast of actors, writers and musicians, allows listeners to fully appreciate the differing personalities of the characters and first person historical accounts in the book. Highly recommended, this audiobook requires more attention than the average audiobook in order to fully follow and comprehend the story.
This experimental novel is set in a cemetery, and is narrated by a variety of voices, primarily the dead who reside in the cemetery and who, for whatever reason, are unable to move on after death. Their narratives are interspersed with various quotations and snippets from historical sources, including diaries, letters, and news reports.
The novel is set during the Civil War in 1862, and President Lincoln's young son Willie has just died and been interred in the cemetery. That night, Lincoln, deeply grief-stricken, both by his son's death and by the war tearing the country apart, visits Willie's tomb (this is a historical fact). The cemetery inhabitants mingle and interact, and want to help Willie transition out, but Lincoln and Willie find it difficult to let each other go.
Saunders has said that this began as a play, and it is very theater-like, particular with its feel of a Greek chorus narrating and commenting on the action. It is experimental and unique, and I've never read anything like it. I strongly, strongly recommend this.
I was game, but the game wore thin after a hundred or so pages. The juxtaposition of young Willie Lincoln's death & Lincoln's grief and the deaths of thousands of soldiers of the civil war is one ripe for literary picking. I would have thought Saunders up to the task of illuminating this dark night of the soul with some trenchant levity, but it all fell somewhat flat for me. Robert Kloss tackled this exact same moment in Alligators of Abraham to much greater effect.
It is well written; however, I did not like the style. Narration can switch from one character to another a dozen or more times in a chapter. It is like reading a list of quotations which, although they sometimes advance the story line, are repetitive. After reading all of the glowing literary reviews, I must say I was disappointed in this novel.
No one until Abraham Lincoln, that is, whose real-life grief over the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, was so consuming that he was reported to have visited the cemetery to hold the child’s body.
And so it is in this novel, narrated in an experimental structure by a group of spirits who, having resisted (some for years, some for centuries) to fully crossover from life to afterlife, welcome Willie and witness Abraham Lincoln’s visit. Woven alongside the spirits’ narratives are quotations from historical records and writings about Lincoln (some real, some invented). Altogether, what develops is a rich, evocative broth -- of grief for sure, and of despair over a war-effort that is failing. But also of respect for Lincoln and fascination of these spirits’ lives, lived at different times in early American history.
(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
What makes Lincoln in the Bardo so special is how Mr. Saunders takes one small fraction of historical lore and plays with it to draw out every ounce of emotion in a reader. At the same time, he provides a general context by which one can examine one’s own belief systems. Then, because that is not enough, by listening to what the shades have to say about their past lives and their current state of existence, he forces readers to examine their own lives and judge it for its worthiness. He manages to make readers an active part of the story while also maintaining their passive observing. It does not make sense, but it is exceedingly effective.
This is Mr. Saunders’ first full-length novel, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is by no means a typical novelist. Instead of huge chunks of descriptive text and miles upon miles of dialogue, the story reads – and is formatted – like a collection of quotes and anecdotes. Some of these are spoken by the shades in attendance at the cemetery who spend their time watching over and explaining the nature of their existence to Willie. Others appear to be historical documents or other epistolary entries. Sometimes, we even see directly into President Lincoln’s mind. For as many different characters as there are in the novel (there are 166 different narrators for the audiobook), each voice is unique and, more importantly, memorable.
In addition, there is not much space devoted to description, but readers still manage to know the distinguishing features of the characters. He adds enough descriptors to the dialogue to bring the characters to life physically as well as emotionally and mentally. It is a feat not many authors would be able to achieve, and yet Mr. Saunders does so with aplomb.
The format lends itself perfectly to an audio experience, and the idea of so many different narrators is highly intriguing. However, reading the novel provides its own pleasures. With the print version, you are able to stop and re-read his words for greater understanding or just pause to savor them. Sometimes, with audio, it is a bit more difficult to do that even while the narrator’s performance can provide a different level of insight.
Plenty has been stated about the story itself, which is as beautiful and gut-wrenching as everyone else is saying. For me, all of that is possible because of the way Mr. Saunders plays with language itself and the idea and appearance of the novel. His version is so refreshing and unique. Each new vignette is a treat, even as it manages to spear your heart with its pathos. It all adds up to the following realization: if there is one book this year that is a must-read, Lincoln in the Bardo is that book.
There is a scene near the end of the book where a white officer attacks a black man, who defends himself and kills the white man by bashing his head in with a rock. This then goes on all night which I take to be a parable on the Civil 'War, which was then a year old and would last for three more bloody years.