Lincoln at the Bardo

This was a strange and wonderful experience to listen to. I listen rather than read in order to expand my reading time (on the treadmill, in the laundry room and kitchen) usually figuring I’m having the same experience either way. But with a cast of 160 for this recording, the performance added something special this time.

A big cast wouldn’t mean anything without the right material, and this is great stuff. The story takes place in a cemetery, where the dead roam at night, and return to their “sick boxes” by day. While roaming, they communicate with each other. Much of the dialogue takes place between 3 characters, Bevins, a gay suicide who decided he wanted to live after slashing his wrists but was too late, Vollman, who was on the verge of consummating his marriage with his very young wife, and Reverend Thomas, who presumed he’d led a good life and would be rewarded in the hereafter, but, at his judgment, the signs were that he was among the worst, condemned to horrific punishment—so he fled. This puts our 3 main cemetery characters in an unsettled state. Bevins notices everything beautiful around him; Vollman is saddled with an enormous erection, and the Reverend carries the moral compass for the trio, determining what the rules are with respect to new arrivals.

And in this story, the new arrival is Willie Lincoln, dead of typhoid fever at 11.

The cemetery scenes alternate with happenings at the White House, and occasionally converge with President Lincoln’s visits to his son’s “stone house.” The White House scenes are presented as quotes, usually from eyewitnesses—excerpts from letters, journals, or newspaper articles from a vast range of sources. These quotes concatenate to give the reader/listener not just images, but a sense of having been there to experience the events oneself—the party held at the White House while the boy lay dying, memories and observations of the boy, perspectives on the Lincolns as parents, and in mourning, what Lincoln looked like, and the harsh political climate with many northerners enraged about the war and holding the president accountable for the loss of lives. The contradictory accounts in each instance, give depth to the experience.

Which brings me to what I think the novel is ultimately about: shifting perspectives. We see it in the conflicting stories from actual people of the time, and then we see it played out among the denizens of the cemetery. There’s a black section in the cemetery, a pit, as opposed to “sick boxes.” When the black ghosts attempt to co-mingle with the white ghosts (Willie Lincoln being the catalyst, since Lincoln is a bridge between whites and blacks) they are turned back. Impoverished white ghosts, stuck in the same pit, stand up for them, saying no, they’re okay, they’re like us. Their perspective has expanded, while the rich whites, still segregated, retain their prejudice.

A similar thing happens when Bevins and Vollman briefly merge. Vollman experiences same sex attraction, and sees Bevins as a handsome young man, where before he’d seen him as something monstrous with multiple eyes—I pictured something like a squid or octopus with eyeballs on the ends of tentacles.

There are many such merges including some with the great man himself, President Lincoln, with each merge generating more insight and compassion.

Saunders has created a marvelous world, one that Lincoln was the ideal choice to place at its center. Too bad we can’t clone the man and put him back in office.


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