June 2018 Open Book Group – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Thank you to Chris for moderating Lincoln in the Bardo, the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, by George Saunders.

Well, wow, was this an original Post-Modern novel or what? Chris noted she had chosen the book because she had really wanted to “talk to someone about it”. The feeling was obviously mutual as a large group gathered getting straight down to a discussion before we were all sitting comfortably.

Set against the height of the American Civil War President Lincoln’s favourite son, 11-year-old Willie, has died and the President and his wife are crippled with grief. Willie is placed in a mausoleum and the novel describes the night Lincoln visits Willie’s coffin to hold him for one last time. A true historical event.

The Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhism term for the transitional state between death and reincarnation where the soul is not connected to the body. Saunders imagines the Bardo in the cemetery with numerous ghosts/spirits flying around talking to themselves and to each other. They describe their lives, regrets and concern for Lincoln who they watch over guiding Willie’s spirit to meet him.

There are two main protaganists leading us through this netherworld; Hans Vollman who was killed by a falling support beam as he was about to consummate his marriage and so flies round sporty a huge erection—and Roger Bevins III a gay man who, suffering from unrequited love, committed suicide. As he died he had a moment of clarity about the beauty of the world. In the Bardo, he is a mass of ears, eyes and noses engaging the senses. There are literally 160 other spirits white, black, straight, gay, rich, poor chattering about their lives in mid 19th century America. The impression is a crazy circus of characters. Contrasted to his imaginary world Saunders tells of real events, describing Lincoln as the man, physically and emotionally, the night Willie died of thyroid and the Civil War raging in the Country.

All this would be a lot to consume, but it is the structure of the novel which creates the reading challenge. There is no real plot. In the Bardo, only the dialogue of the spirits is recorded with their name written beneath. In the real world, Lincoln and historical events are described using extracts from original sources which often conflict in their recollection. Saunders patchworks these together on the page and, like the spirit names, he records the source underneath. He does not attempt to interrupt or rewrite these quotes……….genius originality or the ultimate act of plagiarism?

The discussion erupted. Many did not enjoy it at all. The lack of plot and the confusion of voices in the Bardo led to a frustrating, almost impossible read. Many had had enough by page 70 and those who preserved didn’t feel adequately rewarded. Yes, it was an original approach to the historical novel form which was to be commended, but the form had been poorly executed and therein was its downfall.

Others were disappointed there was not enough about Lincoln. Given the title and their interest in that period of history, they felt short-changed that most of the novel was in the Bardo. The conflicting sources (what colour were Lincoln’s eyes? Are they green or they’re blue?) did reinforce the point that history is only ever subjective. Then someone dropped a bomb-shell. Apparently Saunders had made up some of the “sources” ……….playing with the reader on many levels.

The glumness was broken by a resounding cry from one member “I loved it”. The refrain was repeated by others, all eager to share why.

These members had enjoyed the spirits, just “going with the flow” and entering into their world. Certainly, the names beneath was an initial distraction, but once they were in the Bardo they were hooked. They found was great humour there with bawdry Vollman and the banter of other spirits, as well as some wonderful poetic passages on the beauty of the natural world which they shared with the group. The description of Lincoln does holding Willie for the final farewell was particularly moving.

One member felt the spirits were visceral beings, their neuroses being reflections of physiological trauma experienced in their real lives.

Saunders is a practising Buddhist. Unfortunately there were no Buddhists in the group and we felt this loss. We strongly suspected we had missed many references and really should give The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) a go sometime! One member gave us a rundown on Purgatory the closest comparison our Western religious traditions can provide.

We all came to hear what others thought and we certainly did. Did it change minds? Probably not, but the afternoon made us all think and consider. A perfect Open Book Group Book.


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