Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

Bloomsbury | 2017

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

George Saunders

The Tibetans Buddhists know much more about the dying process and the transition into the afterlife than is commonly known in the West. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, bardo means “transition” or a gap between the completion of one situation and onset of another. Bar means “in between” and do means “suspended” or “thrown.”

Tibetan bardo teaching are extremely ancient and are found in what are called The Dzogchen Tantra. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a unique book of knowledge. It is a kind of guide book or travelogue to afterlife states. To Tibetans, bardo means the intermediate state between death and rebirth.

I bought the Rinpoche book after a dear friend died as means to better understand what he might be going through. What happens when people die is more of interest to me now than it was when I was young and felt that I was immortal.

It was this curiosity that lead me to purchase Lincoln in the Bardo.  Even though I knew it would be a fictionalized account, I thought it might give me a glimpse into the afterlife. In it, I knew before I read a line, that George Saunders imagines the grief-stricken Lincoln returning several times alone to hold the body of his son Willie.

In the book, it is February, 1862, and the American Civil War is raging, taking a huge toll of life on both sides. The President’s beloved eleven-year-old son has fallen ill, gravely ill. When Lincoln and his wife Mary think he might be improving, they host a festive state dinner, only to find that he isn’t recovering and, in fact, dies.

The story that unfolds in a graveyard over the course of a single night is the conversation among several cynical ghosts, namely Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins, and others. They are stuck in the bardo because they are unhappy, led unsatisfying lives, and they feel that they are inconsequential and incapable of influencing the living. It reads more like a play than an ordinary novel.

George Saunders writes, “many years ago, during a visit to Washington, DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out a crypt on a hill and commented that in 1862 while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie died and was temporarily interned in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt on several occasions to hold the boy’s body.”

The image conjured in Saunders’ mind was a blend of the Lincoln Memorial and a Pieta. He wanted to write about it but for twenty years he was too scared to try, but then he didn’t want inscribed on his own gravestone, “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt.” And, so he wrote this book.

As hypnotic as the book is, I was disappointed with it because it wasn’t what I hoped for. It had little to do with Lincoln and Willie but was instead an extended conversation among the ghosts. I had expected that the depth of the president’s grief allowed him something denied to most humans, a brief sojourn into the bardo, the limbo, and I expected we would learn more about what happened to Willie after he died. The idea that he was abandoned among these rather unpleasant ghosts was disturbing.

Furthermore, I wondered since so many young men were being killed daily during this fierce war, why none of the ghosts were soldiers.

The book nevertheless lingers in my mind like a surrealistic play.

Jane M McCabe is an Associate Editor for The Neworld Review. She lives in Los Angeles with her dachshund Sadie, where she continues to work as a writer and painter.

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