Book Buzz: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders is known as a short story genius; his 2013 collection, The Tenth of December, was a National Book Award finalist and named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. Saunders is also an accomplished essayist of darkly humorous pieces exploring consumerism and the role of mass media in modern life, taking an often satirical look at corporate capitalism.

Now comes his first novel, and to hear Saunders discuss it, he might have preferred that Lincoln in the Bardo remain a short story. Or even a play—he confesses to spending years trying to wrangle it into play form. However, the image that he carried for many years of Abraham Lincoln visiting his son Willie’s crypt to hold his small body one last time wouldn’t be dissuaded from becoming a full-blown novel.

The story begins on the evening of a White House party. Willie, suffering from typhoid fever, lies upstairs, still very ill, but expected to recover. Mary Todd Lincoln even saves him some sweets from the party to enjoy when he feels better. Before the night is over, however, Willie is dead and Lincoln—of all our Presidents, the one most steeped in sadness—is despairing. Looming before him is the threat of civil war. He mourns this single life lost against the backdrop of an imminent war where many lives will be lost.

Saunders is known as a “slipstream” writer who weaves fantastical elements into otherwise realistic stories. This singular evening is the historical anchor for Lincoln in the Bardo. Young Willie is interred and Saunders imagines him entering into a state known in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as the “bardo,” an in-between place full of unquiet spirits and unfinished business. Here Willie encounters numerous ghosts, all of whom speak with the authority of the long-dead about Lincoln’s grief and the pettiness and sorrow of their own histories.

Interspersed with the voices of the ghosts are actual historical accounts from this period in history. Some chapters are simply a string of sewn-together quotes from various Lincoln biographies, most real, some made up, a blending of fact and fiction that feels eerily familiar in today’s “post-fact” political climate. This is groundbreaking writing that feels alternately like the ravings of a madman and a haunting, mesmerizing story of grief and love.

Lincoln is portrayed as needing to move through his grief in order to unite a deeply divided populace who adhere to two versions of reality without a lot of hope for reconciliation. Because of the similarity to our current political divide, The Stranger heralded the story as “the first essential novel of the Donald Trump era.”

Political commentary aside, Lincoln in the Bardo also asks spiritual questions about what happens to us after we die. One of the central questions of the novel, according to Saunders, is essentially this: “We’re here, it seems pretty wonderful, it’s gonna end, how should we behave?”

In the end, Saunders succeeds in reminding us of our resilience, humanity and ability to persevere through terrible suffering.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 22, 2017.)