Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

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.97808129953431

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.

 

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34 thoughts on “Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

  1. Oh my goodness- I can see how much you loved this one! I’ll be honest – I didn’t read your whole review because I want to go into this one fresh and with no expectations, but I am definitely coming back to this review after I finally get to read it!!

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  2. I think the slow start is because it looks very tricky to read–even the layout is disorienting, as you say, for a novel. I’m currently reading and must be morbid because I am finding these trapped souls equal parts sad and funny. But I can see why it brought you tears–poor Willie, poor Mr. Lincoln, poor all of us frail mortals.

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  3. I really want to read this! I loved Tenth of December, but I was a little skeptical when I first heard about Saunders’ little foray into fiction with Lincoln in the Bardo (just because I think his shorter stories tend to be better than his longer ones). I’m glad to hear that you loved it. 🙂

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  4. I have seen lots about this book on Twitter of recently, but I had no idea what it was about. Sounds like an interesting idea, although it does not capture my attention that much. However, I love what you said about the unique writing, not knowing who is speaking etc. Thanks for the review!

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  5. I am in line for the audio of this book that has Saunders reading and a long list of famous people also reading. Very excited! Thanks for the warning regarding the crying! I will be sure to have tissues handy.

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  6. Your use of the word makes me think about how rarely I see it used in connection with books and their authors and reading: ‘humane’. And, simultaneously, how much I want to read books with which this term would be naturally used in discussing them. I’ve only read some of his short stories and I enjoyed them (mostly), but he does seem like someone I should be making a point of reading these days. Thanks for the nudge!

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    1. You’re welcome. I wonder if because I’ve read some interviews with him that I find him even more “humane” than his fiction suggests. And his graduation speech that was turned into a little book a couple of years ago, that was just wonderful. He’s very much interested in kindness. Another author who comes across as “humane” is Jess Walter – have you read him before?

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      1. Oh, right: I read that address and thought it quite poignant! Somehow I hadn’t really embraced it as part of his oeuvre however (as sometimes happens when I sneak NF reading from fiction writers into my stack – it’s like they’re two different writers somehow, which is kinda ridiculous).

        I saw JW at a local event a couple of years ago and liked what he had to say but didn’t feel strongly one way or another (it was a panel, not just a single session with him), but your comments (on GR) have settled the matter for me. I’ll be snapping up a copy of Beautiful Ruins next time. Is there another of his you’d recommend as well?

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      2. Oh yay, I hope you like JW. He’s brilliant – after Beautiful Ruins, I love Citizen Vince, and his collection of short stories, We Live in Water. He had a podcast with the author Sherman Alexie (they’re on hiatus now) that was very good, called A Tiny Sense of Accompishment. If you’re into podcasts!

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  7. I didn’t know about this book. I know who Saunders is, but he’s not someone I follow fanatically. I’m surprised how little Lincoln was mentioned in the review, so the book seems more about the Doris, which I wouldn’t have guessed, but really like. What made you cry? Deaths? Or happy crying, too?

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    1. Yes, there is probably more about the spirits than about Lincoln, but he is the vehicle for getting us into the graveyard in the first place. We do get in his thoughts by way of inhabiting spirits. I cried mostly because I placed myself in Lincoln’s shoes as he dealt with Willie’s death. A parent’s worst nightmare. There was some bittersweet crying towards the end, but I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil anything.

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      1. Wow, that sounds interesting! I hope your co-workers were understanding of your bookish ways. Mine get grumpy that I won’t eat with them because I’m trying instead. I’ll get emails: are you sitting with us today, or are you READING?? 😂😂

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