Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel by celebrated short story writer George Saunders. Already a towering figure in the literary world, his new venture was met with rapt attention by readers. Could he dominate a form he had hitherto never attempted? Short answer: A resounding ‘Yes!’
Be warned, Lincoln in the Bardo is a peculiar novel. It chooses as its subject Willie, President Lincoln’s pre pubescent son who died of typhoid in 1862. The recently departed Willie is trapped in a state of spiritual limbo as he passes between life and what comes after. The term ‘Bardo’ is borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism where it describes the bodiless state that exists in the lag between one incarnation and the next.
Willie rouses into his new state surrounded by a motley crew of similarly suspended souls all buried at the graveyard where he is interned. Former generals, pastors, mothers, bachelors, slaves, young virgins, lovers, misers and more are tethered to the physical realm each for a reason that torments them nightly.
Saunders fashions a wonderfully surreal purgatory for each soul from an imagination to rival Neil Gaiman. A hunter, having made a conversion to gentleness, is condemned to sit before a giant pile of all the animals he dispatched, lovingly holding each in proportion to the fear they experienced at death till they fly or totter away diminishing his heap. A rich property owner who floats “horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.” The symbolism is where the comedy crackles, and where the awaiting afterlife seems most foreboding.
Willie is waiting for his father to fetch him, blissfully unaware of his own demise. While Lincoln treads the grounds of the graveyard, head in hands, unable to fully comprehend his loss. When Lincoln steals into the crypt to share some heart wrenching last moments with his dead son we become aware of a unique connection between the two realms as son attempts to communicate with his father.
The novel is interspersed with chapters collecting varying and at times disputing accounts of events leading up to Willie’s death. The disparity is telling, revealing the unreliability of our witnesses to history. Yet the novel is told through a multitude of voices each passing seamlessly from one to another faithfully narrating the events taking place in limbo without disagreement. As if to suggest a purity when stripped of the physical realm.
Lincoln in The Bardo is a reinvention of the novel. Not for literary kicks, but for an immersive experience. Saunders tackles the big themes: love, life, loss and death, taking some enjoyable creative liberties along the way.