Lincoln in the Bardo

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“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and lovingly, and earnestly, muttering, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'”   – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the title refers to Abraham Lincoln, and the bardo is, in Tibetan tradition, the suspended state between lives when the soul is separate from the body. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has entered the bardo upon death from typhoid, where he meets all manner of discontented souls who are similarly suspended, unable to let go of their former lives and move on to whatever comes next. In this bardo, whatever obsessed the person or remained unresolved at the time of death looms large (literally).

After Willie’s funeral, a stricken Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery alone in the night to assuage his grief, according to historical sources. In this extraordinary novel, at the cemetery, Lincoln is unable to see the panoply of ghost-souls around him desperately trying to persuade the young Willie to move on because, in Saunders’ conception of the bardo, children who remain suffer a terrible fate.

It is the early stages of the Civil War, which weighs heavily on the President. Three years of staggering bloodshed loom and over half a million deaths, mostly sons of other grieving parents.

During this one chaotic evening, all of the restless souls, living and dead, are changed.

“The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps, in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It has hard. Hard for him.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is not an ordinary novel by any means, but Saunders is no ordinary writer. (See my post about his collection of short stories which I loved, Tenth of December.) Bardo reads like a play, and I believe plans are already in the making to produce a play. If so, I predict it will be every bit as popular as Hamilton. 

George Saunders is a consummate writer of short stories, and he has often said in interviews that novels aren’t his thing – he’s tried without success to write three or four. And then, Lincoln in the Bardo, came along.

It took me a few pages to acclimate to this strange story, which is essentially a collection of formally cited historical sources, a few brilliantly conceived fictional sources, and lots of dialogue by a grand chorus of characters. It’s a quick read and vintage Saunders: funny, heartbreaking, with piercing, essential truths about life. When I reached the end, I went back to page one to begin again, so I could pick up on what I missed. I missed a lot, there is so much nuance in every scene.

You must read Lincoln in the Bardo. Besides, everyone is talking about it, and you want to be in on the conversation too, don’t you? If you love it, I recommend you follow it with Tenth of December.

“And there was nothing left for me to do, but go. Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”

Here, George Saunders talks with Stephen Colbert: (Fair warning, there is some talk of Trump here and the cultural divide.)

 

 

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or any of George Saunders’ extraordinary short stories? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

TransAtlantic turns history into story

Transatlantic book cover

Colum McCann loves to spend his days inside the skin of his characters, getting to know them and spinning out their incredible stories. The more unlike McCann they are, the better, he says. He’s a virtuoso, with all the confidence of an Irish storyteller. A stereotype, maybe, but I think there is something to it.

In TransAtlantic, McCann is adept at taking on the voices of historical figures like Frederick Douglass, founder of the civil rights movement in America, Arthur Brown, ace flyer and navigator, and Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland.  When he was writing the novel, McCann worked closely with Senator Mitchell’s wife to get the details right, but waited until the manuscript was finished before he actually met Mitchell.

My favorite character, though, is the fictitious Irish housemaid, Lily Duggan. In fact, I think Lily is the heart of the novel. She scrapes together enough money to emigrate from desperate famine and British oppression to America – only to find herself tending to endless numbers of soldiers dying because of another brand of oppression in the bloodbath of the Civil War. As my husband, a lover of history, said to me when we were talking about the book, history comes alive through the stories of individual people. (We’re both reading TransAtlantic for an upcoming family reunion – his extended family is of Irish descent.)

McCann writes each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character. He doesn’t write chronologically, but jumps back and forth in time. You have to be willing to go with the flow and accept that you won’t be with any character or confined to a particular time in history for long.

After I got used to that, I began to see what a powerful way this is to tell a story.

I became immersed in each character’s moment in TransAtlantic, thanks to the vivid, sensual writing. For me, McCann’s sweeping view across time and space casts his characters in a generous, compassionate light. Frederick Douglass and Lily Duggan may feel their lives don’t add up to much, but we see what their sacrifices mean to their descendants. Individuals may be forgotten, but their lives can, indeed, have great meaning, and the consequences of one’s actions can reach around the world and through time. We are all connected.

Frederick Douglass

Gravesite of Frederick Douglass, Mt. Hope Cemetery

At the same time, I thought about justice and oppression as I read TransAtlantic, and how various groups – Irish Catholics, blacks, women, and others – fight for the same thing. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they are in competition.

Frederick Douglass is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, across from the medical center where I work. In the 1800s, upstate New York was a hotbed of radical abolitionist and women’s suffrage fervor. The civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, too, and is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery. She was friends with Douglass and worked with him on abolitionist and women’s suffrage causes. Yet Anthony and women’s rights activists felt betrayed when black men finally won the right to vote and women did not. Ultimately, Douglass couldn’t hold out for women’s rights. He had to seize the moment when black men in American were given their freedom.

In TransAtlantic, McCann writes of Douglass’s trip to Ireland, where he was surprised to discover the Irish suffered under more deplorable conditions than many American slaves.  Douglass could fight only one fight at a time, and chose not to speak out against Irish Catholic oppression as he associated with British and privileged Irish dignitaries.

I’m looking forward to hearing what others think of TransAtlantic at our family reunion and which of the inseparable stories embedded in the novel they found most affecting: Senator Mitchell, at age 64 changing his infant son’s diaper before he flies to Belfast. Frederick Douglass deciding whether to take the starving Irish baby. Alcock and Brown praying their Vickers Vimy will make it out of the cloud before they crash into the ground. Lily Duggan washing the bodies of the dead young men.

If you’ve read TransAtlantic, please tell us what you think in the comments.

Grave site of Helen Pitts, 2nd wife of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s second wife, Helen Pitts, who came from a prominent Rochester family, was white. After her marriage, her family disowned her.

BY COLUM MCCANN:

TransAtlantic

Let the Great World Spin – National Book Award, 2009

Zoli

Dancer

Everything in This Country Must – short film, nominated for Academy Award, 2005

The Side of Brightness

Songdogs

Fishing the Sloe-Black River

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