Lincoln In The Bardo is a lovely, interesting, odd book about the transition of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. While he is between these worlds – in the Bardo – he meets many of the other inhabitants of this in-between place. Over the course of his first night in the Bardo, his father visits his corpse several times. The backdrop to these events is the American Civil War.
I listened to an audio book of Lincoln in the Bardo. It starts of as an extremely difficult listen – this could probably be avoided by knowing something about the unusual structure of the book before beginning to listen to it. A lot of the first 15 short chapters are quotes from other sources. My thought process through this hour went something like: What is going on? Are these quotes from real books, or imaginary ones? What even does the phrase ‘op cit’ mean? I’ve heard it 1000 times already and I’m quite worried that something has gone wrong with the audio book and I’m just being read a long list of footnotes.
Once you get into it you realise that all the chapters dealing with the historical setting are presented as a series of quotes from other texts. These make up about a third of the book – there are over 100 chapters in total. Through these we learn about Lincoln and his wife having a state banquet while their beloved son is gravely ill upstairs. We learn about the civil war and about Lincoln as President. In fact, any action that isn’t taking place in the Bardo is presented in this ‘quotes from other sources’ form.
In the Bardo, Willie meets many other ghosts (best word I can think of to describe them!). They change form depending on their feelings and most have an appearance relating to their death, or their opinion of themselves in life. Our main characters are Mr Bevins, a young, gay man who changed his mind during a suicide attempt, but was too late to be saved. He appears as a human with multiple eyes, ears and arms. The number of these changes frequently. We also have Mr Vollman, a man of advancing years who took a younger wife. He was kind to her and expected no intimate relationship, but she fell in love with him over time. She indicated she was ready to consummate their marriage, when he was unfortunately killed before he went to meet her in bed. His form in the Bardo is himself with an overly large engorged member, to put it politely. It’s size changes throughout the book. We find out these facts early on in the book, I’m not giving away any spoilers here.
There are many other residents of the Bardo. They are, to different degrees, confused about their current state. They refer to their coffins as sick-boxes, and many harbour a belief that they will return to their former life. Willie is unusual because, they tell us, most young people go over to the other side very quickly. Willie, 11 years old, resists and this marks him out as unusual.
There are 166 characters in the book and they are all voiced by different actors. The stellar cast is what drew me to the audio book over the print one (Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Don Cheadle). Though I could only pick out Nick Offerman and David Sedaris as they are Mr Vollman and Mr Bevins. George Saunders voices the third main character The Reverend Everly Thomas. Even though I initially had a difficult time with the audio book, I ended up really glad I had listened to it over reading the print book. I ended up being really helped by recognising characters voices. I would have really struggled to recognise repeat characters if I was just reading it.
In the Bardo, there ends up being a battle of sorts to keep Willie in the Bardo, giving him chance to see his Father again as he visits his body.
I ended up loving Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s an exploration of parental love and grief. It’s about the death of one compared to the death of many (through chapters focussing on events in the civil war). It’s about living a good life, and what that even means. It’s about friendship and death. It’s written beautifully and is so lovely and poetic. Because I was listening to the audio book while driving I couldn’t keep track of my favourite quotes.
The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic.
Marilyn Manson, The Fight Song.
Yes, I know. It’s a great song though and this concept is beautifully explored in Lincoln In The Bardo by Lincoln having to deal with the death of his beloved child at the same time as having to make decisions about the civil war that result in many, many deaths.
I have to be honest, a cursory look at my Learned League stats will tell you I have awful knowledge of american history. It’s currently my worst category and I have only 3/35 questions correct on this topic. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln extends from this:
It’s probably not supposed to be what you get from Lincoln In The Bardo, but I really enjoyed learning more about Lincoln.
Lincoln In The Bardo is primarily occupied by death, yet I found it to be an uplifting read. It’s partly historically educating, quite funny, sad, hopeful, and a beautiful read. I would be interested to hear how anyone got on with reading the print book, over listening to the audio book?