Reading ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ really made me wish for a new book list, a specialised list, made up of English language novels premised on Buddhist philosophy. It’s is going to have to be provided by someone else though. I’ve never quite managed to finish ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and know so little about Buddhism in general, I couldn’t even understand the title of Saunders’ acclaimed novel. Fortunately Google let me know what a Bardo is: ‘(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.‘
With this definition, the novel can start to make some sense. Only, some mind you, when your setting is so vague and liminal, ‘making sense’ is suddenly very low on the agenda. Instead, the book provides a space for exploring ideas, public and private, around identity, motivation and American history. It all makes for an unusual, enigmatic and extremely enjoyable read.
My last review was about Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness‘, which I found extremely ambitious, using an unconventional, fractured narrative structure to capture the complexity and recent traumatic history of Indian sub-continent. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is equally experimental; told entirely through inner monologues and first person narratives, it reads far more like a radio play than a novel. Quibbles of form aside though, Saunders weaves a story based on a historical footnote (Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, died in 1862 and Lincoln visited his grave) into a powerful meditation on agency, identity and loss.
The book is divided into sections, bracketed by contemporary, often contradictory accounts of the historical events. In between these reminders of the real world, the reader, like young Willie, is surrounded by the eccentric spirits who tenaciously stick to their liminal and unnatural ‘state of existence.’ We learn their stories and are given hints as to why they remain thus unnaturally suspended between actual life and true death. Take one incidental character for example:
Mrs. Ellis was a stately, regal woman, always surrounded by three gelatinous orbs floating about her person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters. At times these orbs grew to extreme size, and would bear down upon her, and crush out her blood and other fluids as she wriggled beneath their terrible weight, refusing to cry out, as this would indicate displeasure, and at other times these orbs departed from her and she was greatly tormented, and must rush about trying to find them, and when she did, would weep in relief, at which time they would once again begin bearing down upon her…
Every character in the Bardo has their own story and obsession, and their own place within American history. This is never more evident than with the Black slave spirit community, barred by convention and racist White inhabitants from residing in the main cemetery. For a novel entirely told through different voices, the spirit of a beautiful, mute slave girl is a terrifyingly tragic figure. Beyond the story of personal grief the novel fully engages with the political implications of its title; the one living character to approach the Bardo is Lincoln, the president who was to issue the emancipation proclamation in 1863.
‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is poignant and meditative, but also joyfully exuberant. The imaginative detail is bawdy as well as gruesome and the characters are delightful as they navigate their transitional existence. Full of surprises and consistently moving, I really hope this will make it onto the Booker shortlist. And that my next Buddhist novel will be as satisfyingly unexpected and charming.