The notion that we all have demons in us is commonplace, although modern understanding denies them spiritual form. Except that George Saunders is about as modern as a writer gets and the spirits in his love song to suffering humanity -- Lincoln in the Bardo
-- can't stop haunting themselves even as their bodies molder.
Abraham Lincoln's near-crippling grief on the death of his son Willie inspired Saunders's novel, which recently won the Man Booker prize. The ghostly characters who encircle the Lincolns are a cross-section of anguished Americana, but their confusion, pain and goofiness are universal. In pop culture terms, they desperately need to "let it go."
Bardo is a Buddhist concept that has been loosely compared to the Christian idea of purgatory -- the place where souls dwell to make up for their sins before entering heaven. Bardo does have a spiritual meaning as an existence between lives, but you may be in bardo right now
. Any time your life is sorely disrupted -- perhaps by losing a job or by the death of someone close to you -- you can be in bardo. The question then becomes can you accept impermanence and move on, or do you resist it with all your being.
Part of the fun of Lincoln in the Bardo
is its dynamic structure, which is magnified in the audio version that features 166 voices. More of the fun is recognizing some of your favorite actors reading outrageous bits; there's a cast list at the bottom of this link
. (After listening to the book, I was further amused to see that in the print version the f___s and s___s in the most raucous conversations look just like that -- decorously using the first letter only -- while the audio version, by its nature, lets everything fly.)
Most chapters give you ghostly dialogues that range from horrific to hilarious as the spirits cut into each other to tell you their pathetic stories and try to save Willie Lincoln's soul. Other chapters use the same quote, quote, quote style to offer what seem to be snippets from actual historical accounts about the Lincolns, except that of the five I googled only one was born outside Saunders's imagination.
If good literature is something that entertains you so much you look at your life in a different way, Lincoln at the Bardo
qualifies. And if you are someone who walks through cemeteries on Halloween, let Saunders be your companion as you ponder whether there are souls around you who just can't let it go -- and whether you are actually one of them.
Evan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.