Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.
I don’t know.
I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.
Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.
The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.
“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”
This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.
The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.
This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.
But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.