Books: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders
In the winter of 1862, only months into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s 12-year-old son Willie suddenly died from typhoid fever. The President was so distraught that he actually visited the crypt where Willie lay in state and cradled the dead body. This was verified by a number of newspaper accounts of the day.
This event inspired George Saunders to write “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a highly acclaimed but macabre novel told from the POV of “ghosts” in the Bardo.
So what exactly is a Bardo? It’s the Tibetan word for the intermediate state between death and reincarnation. For Christians, it would be akin to Purgatory.
The “ghosts” who inhabit the Bardo don’t realize they are dead but instead think of themselves in a “hospital yard” and their coffins as “sick-boxes.” They are bewitched by the arrival of young Willie, and watch in wonder as he and his father “meet” in the Bardo. Neither father nor son can accept Willie’s death.
To pass the time, the ghosts retell tales of their own unrealized life on earth, especially the nasty parts. We hear from, among others, a woman who was raped; a murderer (and his victim); a closeted homosexual who committed suicide; and passengers who died in a horrific train crash. The author pulls no punches. You soon realize that “Bardo” is not the sort of book you want to curl up with over a hot cup of cocoa before bedtime.
As Saunders himself said, “not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read ‘Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt", I decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments.” One has to respect the courage and imagination of a writer who acted upon his impulse and wrote such a brilliant novel. But it doesn’t mean you have to like it.