Friday, March 16, 2018

"Lincoln in the Bardo" explores the gap between tragedy and comedy

George Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" is eerie and hilarious. The novel is written by an experienced short story writer and is structured as a series of scenes set in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln visits the resting place of his 11-year-old son, Willie. Saunders has constructed an excellent novel from snatches of dialogue from dead people and swatches from books about he Civil War era in Washington, D.C. You can be excused for getting lost amidst the first few pages and wondering where the book was going. I did. But I persevered, as you sometimes have to do with a challenging literary work.

At the core of the story is a man mourning the untimely death of his son. How do you cope with such a loss? You could write a book about Lincoln's monumental depression. We have seen public figures deal with the death of their offspring. Joe Biden publicly mourned the death of his son Beau and Beau was a seasoned adult and war veteran. But mourning a young son or daughter is a special kind of hell, one that doesn't require a belief in the actual Hell of the Bible or religious iconography or even Dante. It's a hell on earth.

First, what is a bardo? From Merriam-Webster Online:
The intermediate or astral state of the soul after death and before rebirth.
As is true with all online research, you can use this dictionary definition as a launching pad into a universe of references. Bardo is a Tibetan term that's found in the Bardo Todol in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Bardo Todol is translated as "Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing."

Here's a quote from a Lion's Roar piece from April 2017:
More generally, the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life—which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death. 
A bardo can even be seen as the pause between one thought and another. I experience bardos on a daily basis but didn't realize it.  Once you know that, the shades that inhabit the cemetery where Willie Lincoln is buried take on a new dimension. They are not ghosts, really, or those dead people with unfinished business who haunt old hotels and abandoned mental asylums. You know, the ones who get the attention of the guys on TV's "Ghost Adventures." These souls in the bardo make up a compelling cast of characters who comment on Willie's funeral and Lincoln's nighttime foray to his son's final resting place. The two main narrators are printer Hans Vollman and Roger Blevins III, an eternally young man with some secrets.

In the reader's guide that follows the novel (Random House trade paperback), Saunders describes the core question in the novel this way: "How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?"

Heartbreak is at the heart off "Lincoln in the Bardo." Lincoln is so heartbroken by Willie's death that he can barely go on, that he forgets he has another young son at home in a sickbed. Some of the most amazing lines in the book happen when each of the spirits admits he/she is dead and transforms into the next life. As they depart, onlookers get a glimpse into their lives before death and the lives they could have led had they lived to a normal life span. I was reminded of the graveyard scenes in "Our Town," when the dead comment on the fragility -- and ignorance -- of the living. Life is a mystery and a tragedy. Heartbreak is our destiny. The ones we love leave us and we are challenged to keep going in this sphere. Lincoln lost a son, lived with an off-kilter wife, and had a war to run. We often hear of "Lincoln the Emancipator" and "Lincoln the Rail-Splitter." The mythic Lincoln. In recent years, we have heard more about the Lincoln with crippling depression. I can hear R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe wailing "Everybody Hurts" as Lincoln makes his way home from the cemetery.

One note about Saunders as short story writer: I hadn't read a Saunders story in awhile. Not sure why. I picked up a 2016 Random House paperback reissue of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" at my local bookstore. I read the title story and beheld intimations of what would appear in "Bardo." We meet the "ghostly McKinnon family" who occupied the CivilWarLand site back during the Civil War. They met a bad end at the hands of Mr. McKinnon, who was never the same after the Battle of Antietam. The daughter, Maribeth, is "a homely sincere girl who glides around moaning and pining and reading bad poetry chapbooks. Whenever we keep the Park open late for high-school parties, she's in her glory." Maribeth is more real than the narrator's two bratty sons. Saunders makes the real absurd and the absurd real. As Joshua Ferris notes in the intro, it's the latter skill "is a much harder trick to pull off" but it moves Saunders from the pigeonhole of satirist and "into the open air of the first-rate artist."

In "Lincoln in the Bardo," Saunders skill as a writer helps us see that the human tragedy is also the human comedy. Maybe that's a bardo, too, the gap between tragedy and comedy.

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