Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Oct 24, 2018

Strange, fascinating, moving, disturbing, challenging, poignant, and human. Oh, so very human.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a book that delves deep into the human condition and the particular human penchant for storytelling. It presents a myriad cast of characters, each obsessed with telling his or her own story to others. And to living it out, over and over. They are stuck in their stories. Limited by them. Blinded by them. Stories of regret, sorrow, and unfinished lives. Unhappy stories.

For the characters are ghosts. Or spirits or phantoms or souls or what you will. Trapped in a limbo of their own making, unwilling to let go of their previous lives and move on to what comes next. The story is set in a graveyard, the catalyst for its events the entrance of young Willie Lincoln into their ranks. It takes place over the course of one night, the night he is first interred then followed by his father the President. The living man spends the night grieving at the cemetery. His presence impacts the spirits in ways unforeseen, and it is intimated Mr. Lincoln emerges an altered man as well.

Only suggested, for he is the one character who never narrates any of the story himself. All of the others do, in a twisting, weaving, overlapping cacophony of voices that takes a bit to acclimate to. There are central characters, peripheral ones, and snippets of cited documentary sources commenting on the actual historical events. They alternate constantly, sometimes contributing to the central narrative, sometimes obsessing over individual stories. Altogether, the chorus of voices communicates the complexities, the at times confusing paradoxical intricacies, of humanness. Though it can be a painful struggle at times to wade through the requisite suffering, there is balancing hope, joy, and compassion as a reward.

The audio production is laudable and impressive.

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), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, 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.

All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things. Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see one another in this way. As suffering, limited beings, perennially outmatched by circumstances, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.

His sympathy extended to all in this instant, blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides. He was leaving here broken, awed, humbled, diminished. Ready to believe anything of this world. Made less rigidly himself through this loss. Therefore quite powerful. Reduced, ruined, remade. Merciful, patient, dazzled.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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