Lincoln in the Bardo

July 2017 – Karen

Karen’s pick
July 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders
Random House – February 14th, 2017

Time: 1862, one year after the Civil War has begun
Place: Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington D.C.
Story: Ghosts trapped between this world and the next.

Immediately after reading my favorite book (so far) of 2017, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, I asked the question- had I read a work of popular Genre Fiction or a work of Literary Ficton? Initially, I had a hard time answering since we know that many popular Genre Fiction books have been written by great writers like Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, J.K Rowlings and many great Literary Fiction include writers like Jane Austen, George Orwell, Harper Lee, Donna Tartt.

Steven Petite in The Blog states: In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality.

Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.

Okay, so now I ‘ve got my answer. I’ve just read a great work of Genre Fiction since George Saunders brilliantly takes the reader to a new place, the Bardo. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo is a period of transition between states of consciousness: asleep and awake, dead and reborn.

The story takes place in play form, in one night, with 166 characters telling their tales of regret, failings, and pain, which do not allow them to move onto the next “world”. Their physical state has also changed in the Bardo-extra or distorted body parts, remind the reader of the characters’ misgivings at death as well as making it a bit easier to remember their dalliances in life.

But wait…perhaps I think I’ve read a book of Literary Fiction by this masterful writer, since Lincoln in the Bardo takes us on the emotional journey of Abraham Lincoln after the death of his young son Willie. We feel his pain as Lincoln mourns, “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. ‘God has called him home.’”

On the day of his death, Willie’s ghost enters the Bardo because he wants to spend more time with his father. This act is contrary to the usually quick transition time from death to after-life by most children due to their lack of regrets, While the nation is teetering between united and fractured, the President is wavering between duty and collapse. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the cemetery several times to open Willie’s crypt to hold his body.

Benevolently, the “ill” inhabitants (the dead) of the Bardo watch as Lincoln demonstrates his great affection for his son and the tremendous grief he is experiencing. They decide to leave their “sick-boxes” (coffins) and lead a charge of ghosts to persuade the President to return to his son’s grave, so the father and son can let go and move on to that next state of consciousness, respectively, the afterlife and the life after a son’s death. It is at this point in the book that the often-fantastical story holds together by helping us to realize the commonalities of the human condition- angst, despair, misery and love.

So back to my question …… in what shelving category is Lincoln in the Bardo?

Eric Christensen helps to answer this question when he states:

Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous work of heart, humor (smart and scatological), and hope. Fans of literary fiction will love the deep characterization; genre fans will enjoy the weirder, otherworldly aspects; and I think both camps will be moved with Saunders’s exploration of big ideas and profound emotion

I highly recommend Lincoln in the Bardo. Stay with it as the first few chapters are challenging, but well worth the effort.