Review: Lincoln in the Bardo
By Craig Young
7th April 2017 - 01:19 pm
At first sight, this might seem an odd place to review a brilliant piece of experimental fiction, so some explanation is in order.
The "Lincoln" in question is not the Great Emancipator US President Abraham Lincoln, but his son Willie, who was eleven when he died, grieved by both Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who never recovered from the shock of losing her beloved son. Nor is Abraham's ultimate fate at the end of the American Civil War, felled by John Wilkes Booth's bullet disclosed. Instead, we are treated to the grieving parents of a beloved son, but there is so much more within this intriguing book.
Willie might have expected to turn up within a Christian afterlife, but that isn't what happens here. Instead, the young Lincoln finds himself in the Bardo Thodol, the transitory afterlife of Tibetan Buddhism, where he encounters numerous similarly transiting souls, either headed toward nirvana and union with the Transcendent, or else reincarnation and rebirth. These souls are African-American, white, religious, scabrous, rich and poor, straight...and gay. One of the souls that Willie encounters is a kindly young gay man, Roger Bevins III. We learn of this nineteenth century fellow's tragic personal history, given that he committed suicide in the process of what we would today call 'coming out' after rejection by a thwarted prospective (non) lover at an elite boarding school. Along with a similarly compassionate figure, Roger comforts young Lincoln and explains his situation to him and eventually, after lingering and trying to hold on to his relationships with his grieving parents, Willie accepts either rebirth or nirvana- we are not told which. After Willie 'crosses over,' so does Roger, several pages later. We are also given an insight into the life that Roger might have led in an alternate, kinder universe, in which he had his first gay sex in a coach house, lived a long and happy monogamous life with his chosen partner, nursing him at the end, and living for a century.
Even if one doesn't share the premises or religious allegiances of Tibetan Buddhism (and I do not), this is nevertheless a richly textured and complex yet rewarding book. On one level it is about parental grief and the intimacy of mourning, which many gay men will relate to in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On another, it gives an insight into the possibilities, tragedies and yet ultimate victory of love, intimacy and relationships in a paradoxical setting, in which acceptance and letting go becomes a gateway to rewards and options for personal and collective development and transcendence. I wouldn't be surprised to see this win at least one major literary award at some point.
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