Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner
Unique and meaningfully disorienting—Bardo explores the space between death and rebirth, between vengeance and coming to terms with a guilt-ridden life.
The first thing a reader will notice about Joseph Edwin Haeger’s Bardo is the nonlinear structure. The novella begins with a section numbered 18, then jumps to section 26, and so on. There is little explanation about the choice of a scattered order, no dialogue tags, nothing for the reader to do but sink themselves into the first person narrator’s confused headspace and work out the details as he parses through the loss of his son and his anger at the druggies who murdered his boy. The possible murderer also takes his turn at narrating, reliving a lifetime worth of guilt, regret, and ultimately fear of death. For a book filled with drugs and violence, Bardo is surprisingly quiet, guiding the reader through ghostly landscapes with a ruminative tone.
First, there is a father who watches his son’s killer being put to death. But what if the man who received the lethal injection was not the real murderer? What if his cries for innocence weren’t desperate lies? Uncertainty blooms in the father’s considerations, facts obscured by a deep seated anger as he searches out his son’s true killer. At the same time, in flashbacks, the man who was put to death considers the desperate crimes he committed in life and the blackout he experienced the night of the son’s murder. Past and present weave together to display these two men’s uncertainty: Is anyone any longer innocent?
With its short sections (chapters range from a single sentence to two pages), and a structure that bounces around in time, place, and perspective without many stage directions, Bardo asks the reader to do the work of connecting the disjointed chain of events. More work than expected, but rewarding work.
While Haeger’s novella doesn’t allow the reader to breeze through absentmindedly, it offers ample rewards. A second or even third read reveals a deeper daze of emotion, a daze reflected in the dream-like prose, the stuck-in-the-narrator’s-head disjointing of cause and effect. While the father considers the results of his revenge early on, the narrator then backtracks to consider how he got to this point of no return where only murder will assuage his grief. The narrators don’t care about explaining the plot to the reader, but they do ensure that when the story is over, the reader understands not only plot but emotion and intent.
It is obvious while reading Bardo that Joseph Edwin Haeger has really nailed the novella as form. It’s a book to be read in a single sitting even though some sections require the reader to pause and consider the words they’ve just devoured. The scope, with its multiple points of view, its timeline that skips through an entire lifetime, and its emotional depth, seems impossibly large for only 90 pages, but, somehow, Haeger packs in enough questions and considerations to leave the reader contemplating the story for hours, maybe days after reading. In 90 pages, Haeger has captured the depth and meaning of a tome.
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