Hans in the Bardo
Hans in the Bardo
Hans Weyandt, our bookstore manager, has been rolling books around in his head for more than twenty years. In his search to stock our store with great literature, Hans occasionally gets stuck on a book and can’t stop thinking and talking about it. When that happens, he takes to the blog . . .
“Masterpiece” is a label I am quite wary to use on contemporary literature, but Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017) has won me over so completely that I’m afraid I can’t avoid it. In fact, I didn’t even want to write this post. Colson Whitehead has already reviewed the book masterfully and George Saunders certainly doesn’t need our help in boosting sales for his eighth book of fiction—even though this is his first novel. But: there are books we read and enjoy for their prose or creativity in storytelling; books we enjoy while reading and then forget fairly quickly. This, for me, is no such book. Lincoln in the Bardo slowed me down and demanded I adjust to its patterns. And that power extended beyond its 368 pages. I’m still rolling the book around in my head and so could not help but share it with you.
Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t altogether original in terms of its setup—told over the course of one evening—or in how it is narrated—with a chorus comprised of ghosts. Yet the overall effect of a scattershot of voices combined with the short period of time make the book seem, at various turns, an ancient epic and a hyper-modern, lyrical tale. I struggled with the novel’s style initially. Rather than give up, however, I decided to abandon the other books I was reading to give it my complete attention. The subtle differences between each narrator, the glimpses into each ghost’s past through their lives and deaths, immediately bloomed in my mind and I was transfixed.
As the novel progresses, the chorus’ tone varies dramatically, ranging from crude and humorous to sorrowful and wondrous, transforming the cemetery into something like a living village. It spoils nothing of the novel to say that it takes, as its launching point, President Lincoln’s trip to the cemetery to visit his recently deceased son, Willie. And yet the President and his son are not the main characters; they are simply two of more than one hundred speaking voices. Using their relatable sadness as an emotional crux while not allowing them to take over the entire work is just one of many exceptionally thoughtful decisions Saunders made while crafting the narrative. One of the most fascinating things I’ve read about the impetus for the book was that Saunders took some cues from early internet chat rooms—their scrolling narrative seemed, to him, like an interesting way to tell a story.
Nearing the mid-point of the novel I became so enthralled that I began to add other texts to my reading, including old speeches of Lincoln’s and some of Walt Whitman’s civil-war era poetry to wonderful effect. Portions of the novel, in fact, come from primary sources and nicely break up and illuminate the narrated passages. I cruised to the end of the novel knowing I would be sad to leave its pages. And I was.
Moreso, over the past month, I have continued to think about what the book is saying to us about mortality. Maybe what it says about death and how mainstream Western spirituality has long supported fairly ironclad possibilities about the end of our lives on earth. I won’t attempt to explain the Tibetan concept of bardo in any depth, but its essence is a liminal state between lives. It can happen after death or during portions of learning and/or transition in life. As far as I can understand it, that latter interpretation provides a good description for my experience of this book, a moment of learning, anew, what a novel can do and even more how it can do it. I can’t recommend the journey strongly enough.
Drum-Taps, Walt Whitman (NYRB, 2015)
Lincoln Speeches, ed. Allen C. Guelzo and Richard Beeman (Penguin, 2012)
The Lincoln Relics, Stanley Kunitz (Graywolf Press, 1978)
Memories of President Lincoln, Walt Whitman (a really really old little leather volume you probably can't find but we bet you can find its contents online)