Thursday, February 22, 2018

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Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders

To still be there when the sun next set.  
                 mrs. antoinette boxer

And discover, in those moments of restored movement, that we had again been granted the great mother-gift:
                 robert g. twistins

                 lance durning

More time.
                 percival "dash" collier

I have never been a great fan of speculative fiction and enjoyed Saunders' collection The Tenth of December a good deal less enthusiastically than those who raved about it.  I held off reading this, his first novel, despite the awards and reviews, because the idea of a novel about dead people hanging around a cemetery just did not seem promising to me.  I was totally unprepared for this level of promise.

To say the novel is speculative may be technically accurate - it posits a relationship between life and death, heaven and hell, that is extremely detailed and involved.  However, the label doesn't prepare one for the power of the prose or the depth of character here.  It is set up as an extended conversation among various souls waiting around a DC cemetery that centers on the body and soul of Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln's son who has recently died of typhoid.  As the characters debate the fate of Willie's soul - the dead must choose to leave the immediate area of their physical bodies to move on to the afterlife or else stay tethered to the cemetery for eternity - they confess to their own limitations in life and the fears and hopes that keep them from moving on.

Lincoln himself is a character and Saunders draws his portrait through dozens of very short excerpts from the many biographies and histories in the Lincoln canon.  These include descriptions of his demeanor, but also of his hair and face, his hands and gait.  We get a deep and living portrayal of a father in his grief who also happens to be worried about the war ripping his country apart.

We also get a great social history of Nineteenth Century America as the characters - in snippets of dialogue that run from single words to two to three page speeches, discuss their lives in what they refer to as "that previous place."  We learn of their experiences with sex and race, money and family.  It is not clear until late in the novel whether moving on is really such a good idea and as individual characters leave the Bardo, I missed them.

In fact, it was the type of reading experience in which I missed the characters whenever I wasn't reading and began to irrationally hope that their strength and courage to do what they ultimately decide they must do would not flag.  In the end the novel is about redemption, but a redemption that is permeated with loss, a contemplation of life in which, as one of the major narrators, roger begins iii says, after listing objects from "the previous place" he misses,

Everything was real; inconceivable real, infinitely dear.  
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.
And now we must lose them.

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