Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, author: Narrators, *too many narrators to list.
It would take a hard-hearted person not to be moved by the story of the emotional collapse of Mary Lincoln and the terrible outward grief shown by President Abraham Lincoln when their young, very well loved 11 year old son Willie, passed away. He took sick on the day of a state dinner, and both parents were preoccupied with thoughts of him on that evening. The doctor thought he was recovering, but he was incorrect, and Willie died the following day.
The novel is written in a confusing way for many a reader, I am sure, and for the listener, the book will quite possibly be a chore. The narrative is laced with footnotes and their placement is distracting as they interrupt the flow of narrative, which in itself is difficult because it jumps around a lot. Fortunately, I had a print copy to guide me as I listened to the audio. It might take a very strong willed person to stick it out with the audio alone. The print copy is distracting also with the footnotes appearing on the page mixed in with the narrative as they occur, rather than on the bottom of the page or at the end in a group.
Surrounding the story of Lincoln’s loss is the story of the bardo, the place one stays between death and the next state one passes into. The time in that place is determined by the age at death and the life one lived coupled with the manner of death. The place is very nebulous with spirits of the dead passing in and out of the dialogue, some stuck in place, some evil, some unsure that they are dead and all pretty much missing the life they once had and wishing they could return to it. Many of the deaths occurred as a new adventure was about to be embarked upon or a future was unrolling and then stopped in its tracks, or a decision was made that could not be reversed although it was a foolish one which was the cause of the death. Others were the result of an unexpected and unanticipated accident or illness. The spirit activity takes place at the cemetery where Willie has been placed in a borrowed crypt until he can be moved. The story unwinds through the conversations of the various spirits or the dead, as they confess about their lives and discuss the care of the child, Willie, for whom they take responsibility.
Willie dies as the news of the soldier’s deaths goes public and the loss of so many men and of Willie, at the same time, weighs heavily on Lincoln’s shoulders. He lost his son, not a soldier, but he understands how great a loss it is for the families that have fighting men on the front, those still there and those who have died, and he recognizes that he is responsible for all of it. Death is forever. He wonders if it is right to send more to die in order to prevent further death. It seems like a contradiction of terms.
I found the language unnecessarily vulgar and the preoccupation of the spirits with sex to be particularly annoying. However, the thoughts of the spirits in the spirit world were fascinating as they traveled between religiosity and superstition, remorse and denial.
The footnotes pointed out the non-fiction aspects of the behavior of the Lincolns and also his administration during wartime. The rest of the story was fantasy trending to the supernatural. Some of the story was repetitive, as well, and I found it depressing and dark. Every possible aberrant behavior was included in one or another character that had died and been judged unfit or unworthy to go on to a better place, yet some that were judged deficient had no idea what sin they had committed. The story gets an A for creativity but an F for presentation, hence, I gave it a C or three stars.
The book seemed as much about choices as it did about Lincoln. Each character was dealing with the results of some choice that had been made. I decided that the book won the Man Booker Prize because of the intense imagination of the author and his unusual presentation of ideas as he coupled fantasy with reality with the use of so many quotes and footnotes.
An interesting aspect of the story was how the enemies of Lincoln called him names like idiot and incompetent, wishing him ill with an end to his term and even his life. It reminded me of how the enemies of our current President Trump are behaving and made me wonder if someday, he too, might be considered far differently and be hailed as a hero for his accomplishments.
*On the Random House webpage, it says that “The 166-person full cast features award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders’ family, friends, and members of his publishing team…."