Lincoln in the Bardo
March 28, 2018 9:33 AM - by George Saunders - Subscribe

The novel takes place during and after the death of Abraham Lincoln's son William "Willie" Wallace Lincoln and deals with the president's grief at his loss. The bulk of the novel, which takes place over the course of a single evening, is set in the bardo—an intermediate space after death.
posted by DirtyOldTown (6 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This was so very, very good. I can't tell you how much I wanted my pick for the best book of the year not to be by an accomplished acclaimed academic white man. But it's really something special: chock full of memorable characters treated with real empathy, daring in its form, fluid in its prose, and memorable in its philosophy.

I listened to the much-heralded audiobook version of this and am glad that I did, as it is truly a wonder to experience.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:48 PM on March 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it yet, but I wanted to comment to say that you are killing it with the book recs recently. I greatly appreciate it.
posted by Literaryhero at 8:32 PM on March 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I heartily agree that the audio book version of this is a wonder. Listening to the voices of really impressive actors describe Lincoln visiting his son in the crypt and holding him wrecked me. The tension of souls waiting to be weighed on their way into heaven has stuck with me, now, for months afterward. I'm not sure I could have made it through this book in regular print form, and I definitely would have skipped some footnotes.
posted by gladly at 7:02 AM on March 29, 2018

The more I think about this book, the more I think about its recurring theme that very few of us can offer a truly clear accounting of our lives. We're all kidding ourselves about the severity of our failings and somehow selling short the good that is on the other side of the ledger at the same time.

One of the things I truly enjoyed was how it managed to find give glimpses of an enormous, unknowable, complex vision of what happens to people after death with such detail and resonance that they felt like part of a bigger truth than we could ever know. It was such that the felt recognizable on some primal level while still being incomprehensible, whihc just seemed right.

I apologize for bringing in a low culture point of comparison here, but the UK tv show Being Human had a marvelous little touch in its handling of the bridge between life and death that gave me the same feeling: "the men with sticks and ropes" who chase people who are in the in-between. Like LitB, it's an image that is both unique and inexplicable but still somehow resonant in the emotional response it provokes in us and how it echoes some of the tonal aspects of various religious/spiritual/supernatural tropes.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:51 AM on March 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just finished this, and really enjoyed it, and the audiobook reading. David Sedaris was really quite moving. My only question is which of the historical reference material quotes were real and which were fiction. Has anyone found a list separating them out? "Most of these references are real, from the many books on Lincoln’s life and times that Saunders consulted; some are made up. “I loved the idea of the reader and writer playing this elaborate game,” he said. “I’m inventing these sources, but maybe you don’t know it."
posted by jetsetsc at 12:35 PM on July 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Okay, I just finished this book, and I have qualms.
  • The technique left me feeling like the author was always "right there." I get that it could be read as a play, but the interstitial chapters of real/imagined primary sources felt a little too clever.
  • The ending felt very "magical POC", where the dead slaves were used simply to further the story of a white character, and didn't actually give them agency.
  • I was hoping for something more, but in the end it reads like more Philip Roth/John Updike phallo-centrism.
  • Most of the female characters were defined in terms of the sex they have, either for fun or for childbirth. I suppose you could say the same about the two main characters, whose sexuality seemed to be their reason to be in the Bardo, but they were given characterizations beyond carnality.
  • I didn't understand what force was behind tempting the ghosts in the Bardo when the good fantasies started rolling in.
It was beautifully written, and some of the ideas were new, but the points above are really bothering me.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:09 AM on September 17, 2020

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