Lincoln in the Bardo is not an easy read, at least not initially, and the author George Saunders admits as much in an interview with Zadie Smith.[1]

“The beginning is strange, and I did a lot of work calibrating that so that a reader with a certain level of patience would get through it and, in the nick of time, start to figure out what was going on.

“Whole swathes of the book are made up of verbatim quotes from various historical sources, which I cut up and rearranged to form part of the narrative (…) Was this really writing?”

The patience required to figure out “what is going on” does pay off though and it doesn’t take long for the penny to drop, by which time we face the even greater challenge of finding ourselves in a graveyard in intimate conversation with a crowd of very weird ghosts.

The structure of the novel is indeed strange; but mimicking as it does the process of identity creation as posited by Tibetan Buddhism and subjecting the reader to a version of that process is a stroke of genius.

The Tibetan word Bardo means “a transition stage” and is frequently interpreted as being synonymous with the Christian word Purgatory. However there are some important differences and Saunders has made it clear that he chose the word Bardo deliberately for those differences.

The term Bardo is based on a non-dualistic view of reality in which all phenomenon are simply modifications of the “ground luminosity” of consciousness, which is all there is. So, unlike Purgatory the Bardo is not a place but more a state of mind. It can even happen during embodied life as well as after death. It can continue indefinitely ─ but dissolves in a flash when the mental loops, attachments, and obsessions that maintain its existence, are seen through or released.

A characteristic of the after-death Bardo is that the fixed perceptions of “reality” no longer provide limits to the mind, which can thus spin out of control so that any unfinished business, attachment, or obsession becomes monstrous. Saunders portrays this in the book by giving his ghosts various physical “deformities”. Like one, poor old Hans Vollman, with his permanent erection.

Another condition prevailing in the Bardo is that every centre of consciousness is transparent to every other. In Christian terms souls are “naked before God.” So we hear the voices of the ghosts unfiltered by shame. What makes this so uncomfortable, and so absolutely riveting at the same time, is Saunders’ absolute mastery of the use of voice, which he sees as a way of “modelling empathy.”[2] We become one, through empathy, with some strange and unfamiliar obsessions, and some undoubtedly familiar ones.

It is a mark of Saunders compassion and skill as a writer that when some of the ghosts, those individual knots of mental obsession, do unravel and dissolve, it seems so natural. Like when we ourselves experience the “Aha!” moments of letting go of stuckness in our daily lives. For some of the ghosts release comes through a genuine concern and compassion for Lincoln and Willies predicament. For others it comes through an almost accidental failure to obsess, like when we stop a child’s tantrum through distracting them with a bright object.

Deva Rupa

Lincoln in the Bardo is an exhilarating journey. If you let it do its work it will demolish you. And you will love every wonderful minute of it. (Deva Rupa)

[1]Interview with Zadie Smith.

[2] Grace Paley, the Saint of Seeing. George Sanders. The New Yorker. Mar 3, 2017


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