It’s an interesting reading summer when Lincoln in the Bardo is not the first, but the second, highly experimental, postmodern novel about a famous American president I’ve read (the other one being, of course, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings). Lincoln in the Bardo landed on my to-read list after numerous recommendations from trusted sources. I found it slow to get into, a novel I resisted being drawn in by at first, but ended up loving it and being deeply moved by it.
Lincoln in the Bardo takes places in the hours and days immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. The “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife, not entirely unlike some conceptions of Purgatory in Christian imagining — not a place of either torment or reward, but a kind of limbo, a waiting-room on the way to whatever the afterlife holds. Souls who don’t or can’t or won’t move on to another plane of existence are stranded in this state, hanging around the graveyard in denial about the fact that they’re actually dead, clinging to this life with its passions and hopes instead of moving forward. It’s this chorus of the only-mostly-dead who narrate and comment, in a variety of voices, on the newly arrived Lincoln boy and the intense, stormy grief of the father who comes to visit his son’s body.
There’s so much going on here it’s hard to explain it all, even though in some ways the scope of the story is quite narrow. The part that I struggled with was not the scenes of the dead speaking in their various voices from beyond the grave — I had no trouble accepting that as a narrative device. Rather, I had trouble with the expository chapters sprinkled in between, where another plethora of voices narrates and comments upon what’s happening in the “real world.”
These historical accounts — usually only a sentence or two from each — are drawn from eyewitnesses and later chroniclers, describing Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House, President Lincoln’s response to it, the state of the American Civil War at the time, etc. These snippets of historical voices are placed next to one another, sometimes complementing and often directly contradicting each other, echoing the technique of the graveyard voices and reminding us that eyewitness accounts can disagree with each other even over something as basic as the colour of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes or the phase of the moon on the night Willie died. It’s a wonderful, fascinating technique that makes us call history into question, and Saunders handles it as well as he handles everything else in the book.
But. But. BUT.
There’s a big but. And I understand it and I get why he did but I still struggled with it, and it kept me from fully immersing in the book for quite awhile. These “historical sources” that populate the expository, real-world chapters — most of them actually are historical, drawn from historians’ books as well as various contemporary accounts of the events. But a substantial number — less than half, but more than a quarter, I’d estimate — are wholly made up by Saunders, and there’s no distinction made in the way he credits and cites them — the made-up sources look just as real as the real ones, and I was only able to figure out which was which by googling (which of course I did because, have you met me?).
Again, I 100% understand from a literary point of view what Saunders is doing here. He’s playing around with our perceptions of truth, history, story. He’s telling a “historical” story and turning it into “fiction,” but taking away the sheen of verisimilitude that makes “historical fiction” (including the kind I write) feel like a transparent glimpse into history when in fact it’s not. Saunders forces us to question our definitions of both “history” and “fiction” at every turn. Here’s a historical event, narrated by a chorus of fictional characters who aren’t even “real” within the fictional confines of the story — they’re dead and trapped in a mythological afterlife. Then there are these supposedly reliable expository chapters in between, where we should be able to count on objective, dispassionate voices — but not only do these contradict and argue with one another, but some of them are fictional as well, and we can’t tell which ones! It’s a brilliant and at the same time a frustrating technique. Even as I admired it, I struggled with it.
My copy of Lincoln in the Bardo was a library copy (I read mostly e-books, but the structure of this one seemed better fitted to reading on paper) and I’ll be honest: if I’d been reading a copy I owned myself, I would have gotten little sticky-tab circles and colour-coded the historical snippets to indicate to myself which were fictional and which were real. I know that doing that would have undermined the whole point Saunders was making about the unreliability of history, but I would have done it anyway, but I am just that obsessed with “facts” and correctly citing your sources. We are what we are.
Anyway, all this to say that I both admired and struggled with the writer’s technique for the first half of the book, and then I just gave up and accepted it and allowed myself to fall into it. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief, loss, life and death, and once I let the book be what it was, it almost made me cry. The juxtaposition of Lincoln’s grief over his son’s death, with the grief of an entire country over the deaths of its young men in war — a war that Lincoln knows most people hold him responsible for — is powerful. But just as powerful are the personal vignettes of the struggling graveyard characters — people who, for one reason or another, cannot let go of their regrets, their dreams, the hopes for the lives they were supposed to have lived, and the unfinished business they left behind. Letting go of that vision is essential to their ability to move on, and this is why I guess Saunders chose a Buddhist word to describe this afterlife, since letting go — detachment — is so closely associated with Buddhist thought. (Although I would argue it’s there in some sense in all religions, and maybe all sane systems of thought — certainly it’s there in Christianity, whose founder told us we must lose our lives in order to gain them).
As one ghost after another struggles to let go of the old life and move forward into the unknown beyond, the one living man in their midst — Abraham Lincoln — has to let go of the son he dreamed of raising to adulthood, and move back into his own world of the living, in which he holds the the fate of thousands of other men’s sons in his hands.
This is an incredible, powerful, infuriating, challenging and ultimately fulfilling book. I’m so glad I read it.
Still haven’t completely let go of the idea of those little stickers, though.