Weekend Listening: Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’s first novel is a weird, wonderful and woeful book about young Willie Lincoln, son of the President, who is trapped in the “bardo.” That is a Tibetan term for the intermediate state or gap we experience between death and our next rebirth. 

Willie has died and been taken to Oak Hill cemetery, buried in a marble crypt. Based on true historical data, on at least two occasions the president visits the crypt to mourn the loss of his son. The cemetery is populated by the spirits of the dead who have been unwilling to complete their journey to the afterlife and in the bardo. They have continued to remain near their corpses.

The spirit’s narrative is interspersed with quotations from primary and secondary sources about Lincoln’s life. They paint conflicting depictions of the president and his mental state. The spirits themselves are conflicted, referring to their coffins as “sick boxes”, as part of their strategy to avoid facing the reality of their deaths.

The spirits are motley assortment: soldiers, rapists, slaves, drunks and a hundred others. Their advice is also an assortment of conflicting advice on whether to stay or go.

I’ve been consuming a great number of books year as audiobooks. Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the best produced audiobooks. It has a cast of dozens voicing the spirits who are the main characters of the book. That includes the wonderful Nick Offerman and David Sedaris as the lead spirits. There are different voices for the main historical quotes. In total the audiobook production has a 166-person cast.

The narrative readings are as compelling as the words in the novel themselves. This a book you should add to your to-read stack or to-listen library.