Title: Lincoln in the Bardo (Goodreads)
Author: George Saunders
Published: Bloomsbury, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
George Saunders’ long awaited debut novel has been surrounded by hype, and winning the Man Booker prize only helped to launch this book. Saunders is probably best known for his short stories that often share a vibe similar to the television show Black Mirror. I even called his last collection Tenth of December “contemporary witty, with an element of darkness”. Even comparing it to two other great collections that were released about the same time, Black Vodka by Deborah Levy and Revenge by Yōko Ogawa. Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Civil War has been raging for almost a year while the President’s eleven year old son lies in bed gravely ill. Despite the predictions of a full recovery, Willie dies and his body is laid to read in a Georgetown cemetery.
Blending historical data collected while researching this novel, George Saunders blends in a narrative of the afterlife and grief. While the title suggest that Willie Lincoln is in the bardo, the narrative seems to fit more with purgatory. In some schools of Buddhism, bardo is known as the state of existence between death and rebirth, while purgatory is a state of purification before heading to heaven. This distinction is interesting as the characters in this limbo often are unwilling to let go of their physical remains and complete their journey into the afterlife. These characters are often faced with deformities representative of their mortal failures. Saunders does consider himself a student of Nyingma Buddhism but my understanding of theology is primarily Christian, so I tend to interpret the writing with that thought in mind.
The other part of this novel is set around the President and his family as they grieve the loss of Willie. It is here we see a lot of the historical documentation come into play. This includes excerpts from newspapers and biographies. This serves to drive the narrative of grief but also highlights the inconsistencies found in history. What made this book so appealing was the confliction in Abraham Lincoln. While grieving the loss of his own son, he was still responsible for the loss of so many others because of the Civil War. While the American Civil war may have led to many good things, the effects of war were truly felt throughout Lincoln in the Bardo.
The novel is told through different speeches; a narrative that closely resembles a play. This is what makes the audiobook such an alluring option. The publisher put a lot of effort in producing, with a cast of 166 voice actors, including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, Susan Sarandon and George Saunders. I was worried that between the narrative style and the large cast, this would be too much of a gimmick but I think Saunders and the audiobook production managed to never go overboard. However I can understand why this would not work for some readers.
The end result of Lincoln in the Bardo was a dark comedy, ghost story and while I was a little worried (because of all the hype) I am glad my book club made me read this novel. At the moment I prefer George Saunders’ short stories but I can only compare Lincoln in the Bardo with Tenth of December. It does make me curious to try CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia. I know in the future Saunders will continue to be surrounded by hype but I am still interested to see what is next for this author.