“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things”

bardoThe Brown Baggers met on April 18 at the Central Library to discuss George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The experimental novel takes place in 1862 shortly after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s son, Willie, has died and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery where Lincoln visits several times to hold his son’s body. Narrated by snippets of (sometimes) real, historical sources and fictional characters both living and dead, Lincoln in the Bardo explores the president’s grief over the loss of his son and raises larger questions about death, the after-life, and the human condition.

The Brown Baggers were divided between those who loved the book and those who did not. Those who really enjoyed the novel thought it was “extraordinary” and were drawn to the unusual structure of the novel. On the other hand, those who did not like the book found the format to be off-putting. They felt the number of characters (over 150!) was overwhelming and distracting. Some suggested the ghosts in the cemetery may represent the seven deadly sins, but felt the minor ghosts’ stories detracted from the story.

Despite these differences in opinion, all agreed Saunders depicted Lincoln’s grief in a very raw and honest way. They were moved by the relationship between Lincoln and Willie and the portrayal of Lincoln as he is overcome with sorrow and guilt for his son’s death and the thousands of soldiers killed during the Civil War. Many also commented that the book, especially the concept of the “bardo,” raised difficult questions about mortality, whether suffering is part of the human condition, and what lies beyond death.

Books Mentioned:
Neil Gaiman
Ulysses by James Joyce

More Information:
About the author
Review from The New York Times Book Review
Interview with the author in Writer’s Digest

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, May 16 at noon to discuss Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach.

About JMRL Central Reference

Librarians in the reference department at the Central Library of JMRL.

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