Author George Saunders © Chloe Aftel

2017 Man Booker Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

5th September 2017

By Lisa Botwright

Although the only criterion stipulated by the Man Booker Prize is that it must be the ‘very best book of the year’, there’s a definite bias towards literature that’s experimental, that takes risks and pushes the boundaries of the accepted form. Lincoln in the Bardo is a perfect example.

Unfolding over one night, it’s the story of the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, and the heartbreak of his father, President Lincoln. It’s also a ghost story, a history book (the American Civil War rages in the background), possibly a metaphor for democracy and definitely a philosophical discourse on the meaning of life.

Its structure is the first and biggest surprise, and takes some getting used to. It’s written as a series of interjections from squabbling spirits, mixed up with extracts from contemporary secondary sources: some genuine and some made up. Confused? I was; terribly so for the first few chapters, until I got used to the personalities of each of the ghosts.

Adding to the disorientation is the fact that the ghosts themselves are incredibly confused. Hans Vollman was sitting at his desk, eagerly contemplating a night of wedding bliss with his beautiful new wife, when a beam fell from the ceiling and hit him on the head. Roger Bevins III has slashed his wrists following a doomed love affair, but subsequently changes his mind. What each of the spectral characters have in common is that they’re clinging on to their old lives, expecting to wake up any moment; and as result their language is cloaked in euphemism and denial: they refer to their coffins as ‘sick boxes’, for example, as if the cemetery is a strange kind of hospital.

Willie Lincoln’s arrival causes little interest initially. Children do not ‘tarry long’ and disappear very quickly. (Disappear where? And if the ghosts expect others to disappear, why do they not leave too? Just a hint of how much this book prompts a lot more questions than it answers, and frankly makes your head hurt.)

The difference is that Willie is visited by his father in the tomb, during the night, not once but twice; which makes the poor child linger on for the next visit, when ‘to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here is, in this place, a terrible sin’. Lincoln’s visits, apparently, form the nugget of historical fact that inspired George Saunders to write this tale, to imagine the depth of the President’s pain as he said goodbye to his son, in the midst of bloody war where thousands of other American men were burying their sons needlessly due to government policy. The president is the ‘saddest man in the world,’ reports one source in the book, while another contemporary chivvies him unsympathetically to ‘resume the wheel of the ship’.

The tragedy is that in clinging on to his son so desperately, Lincoln Senior is inadvertently obstructing him from reaching peace: ‘some bright place, free of suffering’; and we readers fear that the child will be forced to remain indefinitely in the Bardo – a syncretic afterlife, loosely a cross between Catholic Purgatory and the Buddhist state of limbo before reincarnation.

While there are references to angels, and hints of a Christian heaven, the Buddhist message of letting go of earthly physical connections pervades. One ghost complains that his grieving relatives drove ‘literal daggers’ into him – ‘with every sob, a dagger left the griever and found its way into me, most painfully’ – and we have the cautionary tale of Percival Dash Collier, whose lifetime obsession with his wealth means he’s now ‘forced to lie flat and pointing towards which property worried him the most’.

Although the book is at times immensely wise, I found that the ghostly backstories, and the rapid pace of exchanges between them, mean that the story does also get a little silly; even farcical. It’s the bewildered voice of young Willie that’s the most moving, though, and it roots the story.

The experimental form is undoubtedly brave and clever – and brings a lighter touch to a subject that could have veered into the maudlin or the depressing with a less skilled writer – but, sadly, its eccentricity alienates rather than attracts.

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