Lincoln in the Bardo

lincoln bardo

While this is another book about Lincoln that pushes the imaginary envelope, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is no Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (and, yes, I’ve read both). Their commonalities are Abraham Lincoln and death (or the undead), but that’s about it.

We took it up in my WaR book club in January. It was long and, frankly, we found the style confusing … until we figured out how to ignore it. Two of us listened to the audiobook, a challenging task. Those who read the book eventually just skipped over the constant citations to books, newspaper articles, characters and other sources (real and imagined). But we listeners just couldn’t do that.

For the readers, pages that looked like (italics added):

A sort of sick-box was judged– was judged to be–

hans vollman

Efficacious.

roger bevins iii

Efficacious, yes. Thank you, friend.

hans vollman

Always a pleasure.

roger bevins iii

Easy enough to read right over the references.

For the listeners, however, every line of the book was sounded by one of 166 narrators. On the other hand, listening to people like Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Jeffrey Tambor, Carrie Brownstein, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, and Susan Sarandon read various characters certainly gave the performance a certain verisimilitude that you don’t usually get in an audiobook when one (or maybe two) narrators create voices for everyone in a story. And eventually, the references became a sort of white noise, at least for me.

I knew that Elizabeth Keckley really was Mary Lincoln’s seamstress and that she did write a book about her experiences in the White House. And Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals was said to have been on Barak Obama’s reading list early in his presidency. But other book club members didn’t really stop to think about which sources were real and which weren’t.

We all found elements to like and to dislike in Lincoln in the Bardo. We weren’t big fans of the experimental style of the writing, though most of us were eventually caught up in the drama of the story. Most of us were unfamiliar with the bardo, a belief of Tibetan Buddhists about a state between death and rebirth. Some of us tried to compare it to purgatory or limbo, but it has its own special traits.

In the end, we decided that it had been an interesting book, worth the time we gave it.

Would we recommend it to others? Some would; other’s wouldn’t.

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