“Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel”
Author: George Saunders
Publisher: Random House
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
George Saunders is recognized as the most important short story writer working today. He even received a Macarthur Genius Grant and a Guggenheim in the same year. The 2013 collection “Tenth of December” was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Several of his collections contain a number of short stories and a novella, so it is clear he has been working towards a novel for many years. But “Lincoln in the Bardo” is his first and it is extraordinary, a tour de force.
You have not read anything like it before.
The experience of starting it is like what readers must have felt in 1922 when encountering James Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique in “Ulysses” for the first time. It takes a little while to get your sea legs. Be brave. Stick with it. You will be hugely rewarded.
Like “Ulysses” there is unity of place. Not Dublin, but rather Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
“Ulysses” takes 24 hours; “Bardo” occurs overnight, ending at sunup, with many flashbacks of varying lengths.
The narrative line, the plot, as with Joyce, is actually spare. In February of 1862, with the war going very badly, Abraham Lincoln, already exhausted and depressed, loses his beloved 10-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever. Willie is placed in a coffin in a mausoleum. That same evening, devastated by grief, Lincoln, alone, returns, removes the lid and embraces Willie, holding the boy and talking to him.
Make no mistake, this scene will break your heart.
This appears to be historical fact. Newspapers at the time reported that Lincoln had visited the mausoleum.
In this scene Lincoln expresses his love, his utter sense of loss. He wonders, as we all do, about the justice, the explanation as to why an innocent boy would be taken. In the course of the novel he understands we are all to be taken; there is no “justice” involved. Life leads to death.
Already a man of extraordinary empathy and compassion, Lincoln realizes that wives, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, North and South, by the tens of thousands, are feeling the same grief he feels.
As with Joyce’s novel, there are a host of characters here. In fact the audio book uses 166 voices.
The difference is: all but three—Lincoln, the cemetery groundskeeper and a neighbor woman—are deceased. These “ghosts,” from every walk of life, are in Bardo, the Tibetan limbo, a transitional state between their deaths, which they have yet to acknowledge, and their final destination. They are restless, mostly unhappy. We get, in the course of dialogue, citations from letters, histories old and new, memoirs and newspaper clippings, their life stories, bit by bit. At one point we observe that several are given tantalizing and painful visions of what the rest of their lives would have been had they been able to live them.
All this comes in the form of a 349-page assemblage that looks on the page like a screenplay or an oral history. Every utterance is tagged, cited. Some are real—quotes from Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln, for example. Some sources are made up, as is of course, the dialogue of the dead as they observe Lincoln and Willie, talk among themselves and describe the bizarre activities of that night in the Bardo, some humorous, some sexual, some terrifying.
This structure, the delivery system of the novel, is brilliant, challenging.
Be one who is up to the challenge.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.