Book Review: Lincoln at the Bardo (Kindle Edition) by George Saunders

Posted: January 21, 2018 in Books

lincoln in the bardo

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas are trying to coax Little Willie Lincoln to go with them, away from the Bardo. But Little Willie is waiting for another visit from his father, and feels compelled to stay in the Bardo.  Can Vollman, Bevins, and Reverend Thomas convince Willie to leave the Bardo, even if Reverend Thomas is doubtful about leaving?  What is the Bardo?  And why do Bevins and Vollman want to leave it?

Saunders is trying to create a fictional narrative built around the sickness and eventual death of Willie Lincoln, and intersperses the narrative with historical factoids.  The trouble is, there is not enough history to make this bolter the fictional narrative, and the fictional narrative is incoherent. The historical content actually feels like filler It helps to know what the word bardo means, but only slightly, because the goal of the book is always murky.   Lincoln At The Bardo strives to be the Christmas Carol of historical fiction, but it misses the mark.  Dickens’ characters had a unified purpose; Saunders’ characters seem to be flitting around the ether with no other purpose than to amuse Saunders.

The three men trying to compel Willie to leave the Bardo represent some kind of Greek Chorus, but even  the Greek Chorus does not speak with one voice, and there are other voices which I suppose represent a Vox Popouli, but the voices are so discordant, and there are so many of them, that it’s hard to interpret exactly what the Greek Chorus and the Vox Populi are saying.  Is this a treatise on death?  Is it a treatise on grief?  Is It a treatise on the afterlife?  The narrative is so muddled that it is hard to tell exactly what this book aims to be.  There is a mix of religious philosophies posited in this book and that further muddies the waters.  Tenets of Christianity are mixed with Buddhism and Hinduism, what was Saunders trying to say about religion?  Damned if I know.

Slaves, who played a vital role in gaining their own freedom and ending the Civil War, make a belated appearance in this book, almost as an afterthought, and are characters to be pitied, instead of strong bold characters, fighting for their freedom.   This book, while supposedly trying to be historically accurate, does a historical disservice to black men and women who fought for their freedom during the Civil War and before.  There is some kind of a twist ending, but it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the reader, if he or se is paying attention.  The book limps to an ending, which adds to the malaise I felt for this book.

Lincoln In The Bardo: Don’t belly up to the Bardo for this book.

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