Reading “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Abraham Lincoln, the story goes, visited the crypt of his 11-year-old son Willie shortly after the boy's interment at a cemetery in Georgetown in February of 1862, and during at least one of these visits—the story goes—opened the coffin, removed the boy's body, and cradled it in his arms. George Saunders draws up this slim thread of history and weaves 343 fantastical hardbound pages from it, streaming out over a single night stuffed with dozens of ghostly narrators who, like young Willie, have found themselves in a sort of foggy neverland betwixt life and death known, in the Tibetan tradition, as "the bardo." These ghosts, however, do not know themselves to be dead; they are all hung up and hanging on, clinging to what they remember of the living world and determined to hold there. Yet the bardo is no safe resting place for the young and unencumbered, and so three of them take upon themselves the monumental task to somehow—through the father—convince the child to go.

That's all. I would have been angry if anyone had told me more.

I started “Lincoln in the Bardo” late yesterday and did not quit it til the end, went straight on through afternoon and twilight and evening. I was careful to eat and take liquids, though, careful not to rush. There is a groove and a flow and a line to reading smooth, if you know what I mean, it's precious and rare and I let that line out slowly, afraid the characters might slip away if I let in too much air between us. It's a sitting, this book. It needs your attention and patience. It will dip your head down low and leave you swaying, if you let it. (I let it. I loved it.) It's dark and strange and joyous and deeply, achingly sad. It's a little precious, maybe, a little wayward and confounding, a mixture of Twain and Dickens and Ken Burns and "Waiting for Godot" tossed with Saunders' patented brand of empathy and humor and awe. (Imagine in this day and age your brand being "kindness" and "imagination" and "intelligence.") I've never read anything like it. It's a weird concoction and a wild yarn and a rollicking wonder. By all means, do read!

My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!
—hans vollman

How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?
—the reverend everly thomas

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one's primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.
—roger bevins iii

One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one's story.
—hans vollman

(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)
—the reverend everly thomas

But this had cost us, we now saw. We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.
—roger bevins iii

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
By George Saunders