Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Random House, 2017; 368 pp
Reviewed by Caitlin Pryor
In college at the University of Michigan, I studied James Joyce with Professor John Whittier Ferguson. I distinctly remember him referring to Ulysses as “a book you need to read with other books open on the table.” Since that experience, I had never encountered another novel whose historical and allegorical tendrils were so palpable that I longed for a library to unfold at my feet as I read. Until, that is, I received George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo as a much-wished-for Christmas gift.
Have I ever read a book that more people stopped me at the coffee shop, on the jetway, or on the sidewalk to ask about? Oh, how do you like it?! They trilled, eyes aglow like just-lit candle wicks. My answer? I adored this highly-anticipated novel from virtuosic short story writer and essayist Saunders. I devoured it in two sittings, and have found it hard to carry around other books with as much pride or anticipation since then.
As big-hearted and tender as it is vulgar and full of verve, Lincoln in the Bardo injects 19th century American History with a much-needed dose of contemporary sincerity and feeling. The novel speaks in an enormous, radiant chorus of voices that can be separated into two categories: those poor souls trapped in the “bardo” (a Buddhist interpretation of a liminal state between death and rebirth) and those of historical figures recorded in newspapers, novels, and other first-person accounts (fascinatingly, Saunders has blended both real and imaginary sources to create the tapestry of viewpoints on the president, his family, and the state of the then-warring nation).
What do these voices speak about? The novel focuses on President Abraham Lincoln and his son, Willie, who dies in the novel’s opening pages just as he did in 1862. Saunders has said that he was moved to learn, some years ago, of a story somewhat confirmed by history: after Willie’s death at age 12, President Lincoln, beside himself with grief, visited his son’s crypt more than once to hold the boy’s body. From that image Saunders spins a tale of grief and acceptance that elapses primarily in a single, radiant evening.
Reading Saunders’ work in public has become something of a tradition for me. I swallowed his Tenth of December whole at a cafe, actual tears streaming down my actual face while racing through its titular final story. It’s not only Saunders’ uncanny ability to find the humanity in historical and hideous characters alike that moves me to such feeling: it’s the quality of his language itself. At times the beauty of Saunders’ prose approaches poetry in its voice and also, at times, in its textual presentation. At one point, Willie Lincoln addresses his father from the other side of the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead, hoping he will be heard:
(Father Here I am
What should I
If you tell me to go I will
If you tell me stay I will
I wait upon your advice Sir)
One wonders if we would be better citizens if American History went to such lengths to humanize its heros and its villains alike. Trapped in the bardo, Willie meets a panoply of poor souls who agonize over their former lives, but the centerpieces of this novel are, of course, young Willie and his bereaved father. In his characteristically ambitious fashion, Saunders here attempts to understand not only a father’s grief, but also the evolution of Lincoln’s views regarding the cost of war and, crucially, the horrific legacy of slavery.
Recently released in paperback, this novel is one of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and one of the most inventive. Saunders’ characters are poised, perhaps, to make a transition from the fog-wreathed vistas of the bardo to the big screen: Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, in addition to voicing characters on the audiobook recording, purchased the film rights for the novel shortly after its publication.
Before Saunders’ raucous crew of the dead appears in theatres, I highly encourage you to encounter them in their native limbo. Spending time with these wraiths of history will forever change how you view this fascinating president and his place in American history. It might even change you.