- The Good: Unlike any historical fantasy I’ve ever read; A meandering walk with the selfish people who inhabit purgatory
- The Bad: Little character or plot development
- The Literary: Historical excerpts frame the surreal story
Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night in February 1862, a wide cast of characters narrate the death and afterlife of President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie. The voices that bind the story together are ghosts trapped in a purgatory called The Bardo. They do not know they are dead, but fill their time mingling, complaining, and commiserating. When Willie’s soul arrives, a struggle erupts.
Winner of the Booker Prize and nominated for scores of others, Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel that doesn’t follow many rules. It’s post-modern and avant-garde, allowing fantastical and theatrical characters tell a sad story of a serious man as he faces the death of his young son while leading a nation embroiled in a civil war. When Lincoln returns after the funeral to hold the body of his dead son, the ghosts are moved by his tenderness.
Structurally, this surreal story is framed within long excerpts and quotes from real historical sources. Despite the first-hand nature of may of the quotes, many conflict, underscoring the unreliable nature of perspective, and perhaps even normalizing the people of the Bardo. Although the narration centers around Willie and Lincoln, they are treated as pure archetypes, innocent and grave, and the narration maintains a certain reverential distance. My favorite historical chapters include the descriptions of the moon on the night of Willie’s death, Lincoln’s appearance, and the criticism of Lincoln’s political decisions during the Civil War.
The ghosts are a diverse cast, but Blevins and Vollman primarily move the story forward. Their appearances relate to unresolved issues at the times of their deaths, but they don’t realize they are dead, referring to their corpses as “sick-forms” and their coffins as “sick-boxes”. One ghost, the Reverend Thomas perceives glimpses of heaven and hell, but fearing his own fate, decides to stay in the Bardo.
I really enjoy the idea of exploring the sort of people who are trapped in purgatory, and that they might be saved by a grieving father and an innocent boy who believes his father to fulfill any promise. But the weight and sincerity that Lincoln holds contrasts sharply with the overly comical, lewd, and incongruous Bardo realm. The cast of ghosts is so large it’s difficult to know who is important. Some have their own mini-stories, but most don’t seem to have any point at all. Even their physical appearances are distracting. Vollman walks around naked with a massive, swollen “member” and Bevins is covered with eyes, hands, and noses.
Despite the full-cast narration of the audiobook, I find the actual experience of reading this one to be a chore. The uneven cobblestone path of historical transcripts, musings about death, and purgatorial complaining don;t amount to any real narrative trajectory, which is only one reason why this book is unsatisfying.