Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work. I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December. (I loved that, by the way.) So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might. I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages. I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.
I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body. Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth. That’s all I knew going in. When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring. But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.
I’m so glad I did.
It’s a difficult novel to describe. The structure took a little while for me to settle into. I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill. These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner. Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time. It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.
We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever. Three spirits emerge as main characters: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late. In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.
This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading. I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch. So it took me a week to read it. But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew. I couldn’t put it down. I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic. This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War. It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too. It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path. It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope. It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.” For me, it’s about life itself. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer. Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this. I’m a huge cry-baby! I fully admit it! I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf. Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.