ThoughtsFromBooks: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


In some schools of Buddhism, bardo (Tibetan བར་དོ་ Wylie: bar do) or antarabhāva (Sanskrit) is an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth.



Since the days of the beats, the Bardo Thodol has been known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular, the period between death and rebirth are all bardos, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death.

Hari Kunzru, The Guardian


Lincoln in the Bardo details the aftermath of Willie Lincoln’s death as told through the perspectives of a number of people —  both fictional and real. It paints a picture of a President’s grief juxtaposed with his obligations, with a world that doesn’t stop turning, with a war that doesn’t stop stealing (children, parents, futures). And in doing all that, it tells multitudes of other stories, in just as many voices.



At times, the narrative feels more like a play or an oral history than a novel, with dialogue among the ghosts, interspersed with scraps of historical research and snippets of contemporary news accounts that Mr. Saunders gathered, or in some cases invented.

Alexandra Alter, The New York Times


You know how when you knit a sweater, at first it looks nothing like a sweater? Lincoln in the Bardo is like that. You don’t really understand what is going on in the beginning because of the way it is written — a cohort of different voices speaking, it feels, all at the same time about entirely disconnected things. And then it begins to take shape. You see it crisscrossing into something beautiful, heartrending, and tragic.



The torrent of quotation, set against the torrent of spirit voices, gives Lincoln in the Bardo the feel of the parts of the Bardo Thodol where the soul is beset by wrathful demonic hordes.

Hari, Kunzru, The Guardian


I mean, the novel won the Booker so anything I say or write about it would fall woefully short. It is difficult to read at first, owing to the unique style in which it is written. But once you get the hang of it (about fifteen pages in for me), everything falls seamlessly into place. So give it a try, and hang in there for a little while. It is definitely worth it.



Until next time.

P.S. Book recommendations? Blog suggestions? Thoughts about the transience of human endeavor and the inevitability of oblivion? Comment below! 


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