Lincoln in the Bardo

  • Author: George Saunders
  • Published: 2017

Every once in awhile, you come across a piece of work so original, so hard to define, so outside-the-box bizarre, that it’s difficult to describe. The mere act of absorbing this new and strange piece of work can puzzle your senses. Your normal barometer of quality does not apply. When confronted with a painting, book or movie of this sort, I find the best antidote is to just let the piece breathe. Reserve your judgement. Let it wash over you and allow your opinion to form organically.

The questions begin to trickle in. Was it good or merely just peculiar?  Does it stay with you? Do you find yourself daydreaming about it? Have you ever experienced another work quite like it? 

In the case of Lincoln in the Bardo, the mystifyingly wonderful novel by George Saunders, I had to take such an approach, and now I can’t get it out of my head. The premise, characters, and writing are all so wildly imaginative, so sparklingly alive, that it took my brain a few chapters to catch up to how good this book actually is. That’s probably due to the fact that it’s almost impossible to categorize. Part play, part historical fiction, part philosophical treatise - it is a dizzying fanciful romp through the corridors of the afterlife. A tragedy that will make you laugh out loud, and a comedy that will rip your heart out. It’s a fertile and whimsical exploration on what it is that makes us human.

The tale takes place over the course of an exceptionally long night in Georgetown cemetery. Willie Lincoln, the president’s cherished eleven year-old-son, has just succumbed after a hard fought battle with typhoid fever, and lies lifeless inside a white stone tomb. His death leaves the devastated president unmoored during a time of unrivaled crisis. 

Willie’s spirit awakens to find his father clutching his corpse in his arms, gently crying and rocking the boy’s lifeless form inside the cold crypt. The scene, so moving and utterly shocking to the other wayward spirits nearby, attracts ghosts from all over the cemetery, giving rise to a massive crowd of specters, all hoping against hope that this charitable act will somehow open a door to their own redemption. 

We are thus thrust into the bardo - the Tibetan word for purgatory - and the cavalcade of characters haunting this “in between” place is one of the novels great pleasures. There’s the licentious and libidinous bachelors, the hunter surrounded by thousands of his animal victims, the grieving mother who’s daughters trail her like floating balloons, the confederate general and slave locked in a battle of never-ending violence - the list goes on. But none so are more indelible than the trio of spirits who take it upon themselves to protect the boy - the upright reverend Everly Thomas, the love-sick and kind Hans Vollman, and the tragic but witty homosexual Roger Bevins. Through their scheming and courage, the three embark on a mission to bring peace to a distraught father and young Willie to that better place, before he is swallowed up by a menacing tentacled underworld.

Too much? Not in the least. The tale only becomes more madcap from there, as ghosts of all sorts intermingle amongst themselves, possess the living, and learn to accept their fates while racing against the clock to help poor Willie. Saunders, in what must’ve been painstaking research, cherrypicks insightful quotes from journals, letters, eye-witnesses and historians to paint an unforgettable picture of a grieving President Lincoln and his “sweet little muffin of a fellow” Willie. The quotes and passages are listed one after another, with each source cited directly underneath. The technique proves a revelation - poking fun at the contradictory and opinionated reports from witnesses to history, but actually culminating into such a well rounded and lovely portrait of who Lincoln was that you feel like you learn the very essence of him. Saunders certainly helps this impression when he writes from inside the President’s mind - an intelligent rapid fire stream-of-consciousness that lurches from one emotion to the next - an entrancing river of embracing and discarding, fighting and accepting, hating and loving - all done as Lincoln struggles to rise from despair and shoulder the burden of his countrymen. 

In it’s own uniquely unhinged way, Lincoln in the Bardo gives the reader a more insightful window into one of our nation’s greatest heroes than many of the deep histories written about him. You will love Lincoln all over again. And you will love George Saunders, not only for taking on such a jaw-dropping experiment in pure inventiveness, but for executing it with such radiant precision. History has never been so alive, by being so dead.