Lincoln in the Bardo, was chosen for our book group so I was obligated to give it a go. My first take was repulsion since it concerns the death and passage of eleven year-old Willie Lincoln, son of the President. Set as it is in a cemetery /mausoleum / chapel it’s a subject I am not quick to engage. Furthermore it accepts the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a premise which I regard as hocus-pocus.
But plunge in I did. Without trying to summarize the plot, no pun intended, I found myself being drawn in as my resistance withered. This is often the case for me. The book-train leaves the station and I’m either left on the platform or hanging on the caboose dragged along.
As it is, the narrative of this book matched my incapacity to give myself over to it. The letting go process corresponds to Lincoln’s slow release of his son. The President is filled with guilt as well as grief. Historians have recorded that the typhoid fever which took Willie’s life happened upstairs in the White House as a presidential party was in loud celebration downstairs.
The bardo is a transitional space across the great divide between life and death (and rebirth if you will), what Christians might call, purgatory. In the Saunders book it is populated by a chorus of deceased souls not unlike Spoon River Anthology. Three characters, in particular, are prominent, each with unresolved issues. Some of their stories are reliable and others disingenuous. It takes a while to sort them out. Maybe this is an echo of what Whitman meant when he heard America Singing, part comedy, part gravity.
The moment of transformation occurs, in this bizarre story, when the unalive characters in the bardo exert an extraordinary communal burst of empathy and inhabit the body and soul of Lincoln urging him to surrender his love into an acceptance of the loss and to move on.
Against this personal tragedy is the greater one which demands his attention. The nation has been ruptured and hundreds of thousands more will die in the carnage. When this occurs our main characters are also free to make their passage. In some strange way, Willie becomes the Great Emancipator of those caught souls, leading them to get un-stuck and continue their journey.
The author, George Saunders, brings the historical moment of the Civil War into our consciousness of today. Seen from the long view the conflict is the American Hundred Years War, or rather our two or three hundred year one. Since our inception we have slaughtered our hosts and imported human cargo for enslavement.
If we extend the metaphor of the novel it becomes a plea for entering into each other’s mind with an enormous empathy to reach the place of soul. In fact the author suggests that it was only when Lincoln released his son, with help from those of the floating world,that he was able to go ahead with the Emancipation Proclamation.
The book was my struggle along with Lincoln’s. First I circled around it, scoffed then sniffed at it, picked it up and put it down, then I skimmed it and finally read it and accepted the schtick on its own terms. I remain unpersuaded regarding after-life, though it is a comforting fable. It can also be seen as a literary device for engaging the reader in a variety of imaginative speculations.
There’s a long list of movies and books which I find unattractive including Gothic tales, gratuitous (even un-gratuitous) gore, apocalyptic, horror, disease of-the week, comic book adaptations and those with laugh-tracks. Maybe it’s my loss, at least for those which have received acclaim from people I esteem. Let this be a lesson for me. Sometimes the subjects I turn away from are the ones I might find most rewarding. And then the subject becomes why I was repelled in the first place. What I call discernment may be nothing more than an over-active critical faculty which can be self-defeating by limiting the possibilities and cramping one's aesthetic choices.