Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders
According to an interview with the author, Saunders was inspired to write this book when he learned that Abraham Lincoln was known to visit and hold his son’s body after he died of typhoid fever. Willie Lincoln died when he was 11 years old and while his father was in the White House. This story imagines what happened while Lincoln was in the crypt, but from the perspective of the spirits in the Bardo.
Bardo is a Buddhist term for the intermediary space between life and death. This Bardo is full of souls that have not completely crossed to the other side for multiple reasons. Many don’t know that they’re actually dead; others do know but are scared of what’s going to happen to them when they cross. Most of these spirits have been in the Bardo since well before Lincoln took office and they’ve created their own little neighborhood full of eccentricities.
This story was told in the most extraordinary way. When we’re in the Bardo with the spirits, the narrator constantly shifts from spirit to spirit, almost as though we’re watching something on stage. But to build the historical picture, Saunders amassed an incredible amount of original sources to tell the story of Willie’s death – historical texts, letters, journals, shift reports, etc – and arranged them to tell the story. The amount of research that went into this is astounding.
There were incredible scenes. The thought of burying a child is heartbreaking beyond words and the grief that was described was palpable and written so well. A lot of this probably went over my head, but for me this book explored what it means to let go: how to let go when we die and how to let go of those that leave us. Lincoln leaves his child’s crypt when he realizes that the child’s body is not what he loved, but he was drawn to the spark that belonged to the child. Realizing this gives Lincoln the courage to leave Willie’s body behind in a cold and awful place, which no parent wants to think about, and mourn with his family.
But in some ways, that misses the mark for me. I know that our bodies are simply our physical representation and our brains create who we are. When our brains stop functioning, the spark leaves us and we’re no longer there. But the bodies of my children aren’t so easily forgotten. Their bodies grew inside of me, I birthed them, I rocked them, nursed them, tickled them, bathed them, chased them, bandaged them, rubbed their backs. Physical touch is how I’ve comforted and loved them before we could effectively communicate with words. Touch is one of the most effective teachers of children when they are pre-verbal and learning how the world works.
Maybe by the time my children are 11 and I’m far beyond this stage of being so hands-on in their lives I will feel differently, but as infants and toddlers my children’s bodies are so much of who they are. Leaving their bodies behind would be the most agonizing thing ever. Hands down. When this novel ended, I didn’t feel a resolution at all. I’m not sure if I was supposed to.
I read recently that Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have bought the movie rights, which is an exciting thought. This book is screaming to be made into a movie and is basically written as a screenplay already given the shifting narrator. I’m interested to see what they do with it. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that Tim Burton could really create something amazing out of this text. I can’t wait to see this be brought to life!