“Lincoln in the Bardo” will confound you, will move you and make you feel drugged at times, will challenge your conceptions of what a novel should be — but also reward you with what it could be.
George Saunders, a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer, finally published his first novel earlier this year. You can call it a novel—because novels are malleable, multi-dimensional—but it is really something else: a blow to the heart, an eye-opener, just as haunting as many of the apparitions that quasi-people it.
Mostly, although it is about the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln in 1862, his temporary interment in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, and a grieving, deeply wounded Abraham Lincoln come to hold his son while a vivid series of American types and individuals, denizens of the cemetery who still think themselves alive in their “sick boxes” make themselves heard.
Lincoln’s voice is heard, as is Willie’s, as he arrives here after his death during the course of a lavish receptions thrown reluctantly by the Lincolns, who had been assured that Willie would be fine by a doctor.
But those other voices, those denizens, they are the narrators of this single hell-haunted, explosive, dream-like night. They are in the Bardo, a transitional state described in “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” a place neither here nor there, but also everywhere.
They include a man whose life was cut short before he could consummate his honeymoon, a man who has killed the object of his affections, a homeless family which sleeps in the fields and thinks mostly of sex and food, a pastor, a woman with three daughters. Some of them have been dead a long time, but still persisted in thinking that they will be restored to their lives and continue living. Periodically, during the course of a stormy night, some are disappeared in a furious flash of light . Their appearance, duly and sharply and hungrily noted, is bizarre.
For Lincoln, it is the second year of the Civil War, and it has devastated him with both the loss now of his son and the greater loss sum of losses suffered by the country and its people, a burden already being keenly felt.
Saunders has fashioned out of this clay not only a novel, but a work that in structure makes description difficult. The book opens with a detailed description of the reception—the people there, the floral arrangements and such. Saunders love lists and so, makes them lyrical, that by accumulation become like an American folk epic.