Listening to the Wind
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Audiobook with a cast of 166 narrators
A “reader” response by Kathleen Kirk (last of a 3-part series)
There were very few sound effects in the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Mostly the wind. There was a bit of music between some sections and comprising the penultimate track. (The last track was a list of 166 voice credits—actors, Random House colleagues, the author’s friends and family.) I thought I heard the wind at the very beginning and in sections of silence, but it was very pronounced at certain times, matching the historical weather reports of a terrible wind storm on the day Willie Lincoln was buried.
As synchronicity would have it, there was a strong wind in central Illinois as I stood listening to the book in my kitchen. Up the road, a huge branch crashed down near my parents’ house. And the rain came down.
As the book progressed, so did the urgency of my wishes for the characters in this book—the principal characters and the wild array of side characters. I so wanted them to find what they needed. Those who didn’t kept suffering, some of them cursing hilariously. Those who did, well….that’s a spoiler, and I don’t just mean rotting flesh.
Saunders gives us a lot of history in the book, and I learned many things. I learned about embalming practices of the time, how the dead took on a marble appearance. I learned about the fallibility of memory, history, impression. I was reminded that some loved Lincoln, and some despised him. He was seen as an ugly man, even the ugliest man in the world, or as a man with beautiful, melancholy eyes, depending on the attitude of the viewer.
This may be labeled as historical fiction, but it also has some contemporary physics in it, when it comes to the alternate or parallel lives possible in the bardo. When Saunders speaks of “future forms,” I am reminded that he also writes a kind of speculative fiction.
Listening to Lincoln in the Bardo, I learned that, as wonderful a listening experience as this was, I preferred the narrators who sounded like they were reading (like David Sedaris) or quietly inhabiting a character (like Nick Offerman) to the ones who were more consciously “acting.” I respect actors. (I am one!) But I want to see them in plays and movies. This audiobook-listening experience put me in a kind of “bardo” between reading and watching a movie, and it was weird. Books grip me, movies grip me, and this sometimes gripped me, and sometimes tossed me out.
Yes, I learned that I still prefer reading a book to listening to it, other than when my mother read to me as a child, and I hope my eyes hold out as long as they’ll need to for me to keep reading until I die. It’s true that audiobooks are a great boon for the visually challenged or impaired, or a wonderful thing to take on a long car trip. If you love audiobooks, do tell me about that in the comment section below.
A last lovely thing I learned was stated by young Willie—innocent Willie—who comes to realize something: “All we can do is what we should.” Oh, Willie, yes! This has a particular meaning in its particular context, but, even as I heard it, I heard its more universal implication, that we know what we should do and therefore have an obligation to do it. We have a gut instinct about that, and it’s better if we follow that instinct than deny it or resist it. And that instinct is related to the implied moral obligation. Yes, we can ask, “What should we do?” in open-ended ways about open-ended things, and life is complicated, and some answers are not easy to find. We must apply thought, attention, and feeling to important questions. But when it comes down to, “All we can do is what we should,” then we should do all we can do.