Where does one store a souvenir Abraham Lincoln beard? I bought mine years ago on a road trip with my father to see Lincoln historic sites in Springfield, Illinois, but I’ve never known what to do with it. After I was told to stop wearing it to work every day, I tried hanging it up with my ball caps for a while, but it got in the way. Then I tried my underwear drawer, but that was way too weird.
It finally found a home among my much neglected neckties, which makes sense because I inherited most of those from my dad, and I only keep the beard around as a memento of him. On the last day of our trip we visited Lincoln’s tomb, an impressive bastion of granite, marble, and bronze, beneath which the president lies with Mary Todd and three of their four sons: Tad, Edward, and Willie. This place was heaven for us, since my dad also left me his gene for walking battlefields, reading gravestones, and pondering the life of Honest Abe.
So when I heard about George Saunders’ new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I knew I had to read it. Better known for his celebrated short story and essay collections, Saunders has written a novel set partly in Washington D.C.’s Oak Hill cemetery, and partly in his own conception of the Tibetan Buddhist “bardo,” a dreamlike spirit zone inhabited by those in transition from one life to the next. Among Oak Hill Cemetery’s most famous citizens (until his re-interment in Springfield) was Willie Lincoln, the president’s third son, whose death from typhoid fever at age 11 in 1862 may have been the heaviest burden borne by Lincoln.
In Saunders’ novel, a sort of textual collage including snippets of historical and archival material, Lincoln’s grief forms the center around which swirl the many first person voices of the Oak Hill dead. Most of the departed move quickly through the bardo, but, for individual reasons, the lost souls who greet Willie Lincoln’s newly disembodied consciousness are, as they say, “tarrying.”
A tapestry of perspectives emerges as they speak. The book is a painful, funny, and fascinating meditation on the impermanence of life, and Saunders (one of whose short stories features a cow with a window in its side, after all) spares no surreal expense. A variety of strange phenomena seem to be a normal part of daily “life” in the bardo, and the denizens of Oak Hill manifest the passions their former lives in bizarre physical forms, such as elongated or shrunken bodies with multiple eyes, ears, and hands.
The critical and commercial success of Lincoln in the Bardo puts Saunders squarely in the American literary limelight, but the ornate audio recording of the novel signals an even bigger trend: We live in the golden age of audiobooks. Now that the podcast has shed its peach fuzz and assumed the full throated voice of a grown-up entertainment medium, its nerdy uncle, the audiobook, is finally coming out of the shadows to take its seat at the table and demand a share of the mashed potatoes (quit hogging the gravy, TV shows! And could somebody get another drink for poor old music on CD?).
The booming popularity of audiobooks has been one of the biggest publishing stories of the past few years, and Penguin Random House has produced an elaborate version this best seller, complete with sound effects and 166 different narrators (the company is reported to be applying for the Guinness World Record for most narrators of an audiobook). The cast includes actors and non-actors assembled by Saunders, and half the fun is in picking out familiar voices, such as those of Susan Sarandon, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Rainn Wilson, Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy, and authors Mary Karr and David Sedaris. It reads like a theater piece and brought back memories of listening to the classic BBC full cast production of The Hobbit which I loved so much as a kid.
Lincoln in the Bardo calls to mind several other classic audiobooks available via the library’s instantly available (i.e. no waiting) Hoopla streaming content platform. In tone and subject matter, the book reminds me most of another multi-voiced audio production, Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ channeling of the inhabitants of a Welsh coastal village, famously performed as a BBC radio play in 1954 by Richard Burton, Rachel Thomas, and others.
Any chorus of voices from a Lincoln-related graveyard owes a huge debt to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which presents the testimonies of 212 separate characters lying below ground in Illinois, performed here by a cast of 50 (the former Guinness World Record holder, perhaps?), one of whom portrays Ann Rutledge, reputed to have been Lincoln’s first love, also taken too early by typhoid. Then there is Neil Gaiman’s Newbery-winning Graveyard Book, the tale of an orphaned toddler adopted and raised by the occupants of a graveyard.
If all this talk of the dear departed turns you off, feel free to whistle on past. The literature of the graveyard isn’t for everyone. For whatever reason, some are drawn to cemeteries and their stories. There we walk, find comfort in the presence of the dead, and as Honest Abe himself once said at the dedication of another famous burial ground, from them “take increased devotion” to our cause.
–Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library