Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

My son, here may indeed be torment, but not death.
—Dante (Purgatorio)

I finished the final 70 or so pages of George Saunders’ masterpiece this morning. It has been around for awhile, and I realize I’m late to the party, but I’m compelled to try to explain the effect this book had on…my soul.

Saunders addresses issues that have plagued American life and thought since the beginning of our democracy. He also addresses existential issues that all of humanity has wrestled with since we first looked up from a campfire and wondered why the hell we were here on this world. The book seems to spring from a sort-of Catholic point of view, as the entire novel is set in an interpretation of Purgatory–the Bardo. (Bardo– in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to the length of, and conduct in a person’s life, and the manner of death.).

W.W. Lincoln

William Wallace Lincoln, c. 1862

I could go on for days, so let me toss out a few ideas from this novel that intrigue and terrify me. None of these ideas are new to me, yet, strangely, I find myself newly concerned with them in a more urgent manner than before. This, friends, is the first clue that one has encountered great literature. I’ll keep it to three, though the book brims with fascinating concepts:

Judgement–that once we have committed sins in this life, they are irrevocable and cannot be atoned for. A price must be paid. Judgement is a horrifying prospect, especially as it unfolds in this novel as an implacable and clearly defined process for which there can be no remedy or exception. Saunders’ depiction of a particular sinner’s entry into hell is especially sobering. Make some room on the doom sofa, Dante Alighieri.

The Afterlife—that it may dwarf our carnal existence in terms of what we call “time,” but its nature may be wholly dependent upon the acts we commit during our flash-in-the-pan sojourn on Earth. Lincoln in the Bardo thrusts a filth-encrusted mirror before my eyes in which I see my whole life, my choices, my mistakes…my crimes. Perhaps the greatest/most terrifying thing about this book, for me, is the lightning-strike imperative it conveys to Be Better; I must do what I can to atone for my sins here. Now. Otherwise, I am doomed. This feeling springs not only from my innate sense of self-preservation, but from the compassion I feel for those I have wronged and the love I have forgotten how to express for certain people who may not realize they’re dear to me.

Racism—As fictional Lincoln admits is the case within himself, once we, as children, have been tainted by racist ideals and institutions handed down to us from previous generations, we carry it inside us, often invisibly, throughout our lives in the same way we carry any other childhood-learned sense of what the world is and how it works.
The difference in some is that, once knowledge enlightens us; when the light of day shines on the festering places in our souls and illuminates the ugliness harbored there, we can begin to resist. Once we learn to recognize injustice, we can live as good people who choose not to act on our worst impulses. Nevertheless, the racism the world feeds us as children survives like a dormant disease that must be managed by constant attention and learning and above all, true compassion.

So many human beings, whether wittingly or not, nurse their infants on mother’s milk tainted with an insidious moral poison that those fortunate enough to become aware of it must spend their lives working to overcome in themselves. Saunders’ Lincoln shows us that the humility of recognizing this must come before we can make a meaningful effort to address racism in the world around us.

And yes, my fellow white Americans, I’m mainly talking about us.

The “best” literature urges us to be better than we are, to push the edge of civilization ever further into the wilderness of ignorance and hatred that surrounds us; to simply love as hard as we can, for as long as we have, and stop doing harm.

I’m not a person who shows a lot of outward emotion, but…yes, this book makes me weep with remorse, with existential terror, with gratitude, and with jaw-dropping awe at the absolute artistic mastery of George Saunders.

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