Books: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’ first novel isn’t quite a novel. It is a mix of soliloquies, disembodied dialogues, historical annotations and a poetic expression of wild & free imagination that (responsibly) sets the mind free from reason in a heartfelt and humanistic way. While reading, one is allowed to experience the realm of the unreal that is creativity, a realm that also tends to exist as a space to question the real world from which it has sprung. In the footsteps of Kurt Vonnegut, Saunders has always been a master of the wry hopeful tone and, like the later years of Grandpa Kurt, Lincoln in the Bardo uses the paranormal/supernatural to make for an even more emboldened exploration of possibility. A better world can be imagined and sometimes to see that we must look beyond what we know as reality. Bardo vibrates with an otherworldliness that ones imagination must engage with to envision the mysteries of the living world and a better future beyond for it.

I don’t want to give too much detail in terms of narrative, I want to remain vague so readers can experience reading the book like I did- a destabilization that makes one re-read a passage, think about it, breathe in the ether it creates. The book coaxes readers down a very precise written path, each step building upon the next, each piece so intentional that the absence of a single word would change the fates of the book entirely. It begins with the death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. Then it veers into a ghostly post-death existence following those trapped in the graveyard beside young Willie Lincoln, their free indirect discourse floats through the text with a quick, stage-like bounce. They comment on their experiences both in and out of death, acting as mediums between worlds and between people. Following this strange and dreamy account of the state of things are historical quotations. Personal letters, books on the Civil War, diary entries are excerpted in succession, painting a picture of what first hand accounts, historians and authors believe to be the reality of the moments surrounding Willie’s passing. These conflicting accounts of time and space completely shake the foundation of truth: the moon was either full or not yet full, according to what source you look towards the waxing and waning is wildly different. The parallels that Saunders silently draws between the unknowingness of history and our own current wavering media reality leaves an indelible mark on ones understanding of perception. But, in true Saunders fashion, the book does not proseyltize its own intelligence, nor does it condemn or judge. The book coos into a humanistic comedy with little boundaries between anyone and anything, evolving into a utopia of timeless empathy.

Once I heard Saunders speak at a now extinct Midtown Barnes & Noble on his nonfiction essay about Dubai. He spoke of the cynicism he approached the place with, a cynicism that immediately melted when encountering a young boy witness snow for the first time. A manufactured snow being pumped into a resort that housed a desert ice castle. It is this feeling of strange beauty in existence that is the soul of Saunders’ work. Even though we live in a world that we choose to adorn with odd ideas of status, trend and politics, it is still a world we inhabit together, whether it be on the page or off it. Saunders draws no boundaries between the little boy awed by his first snow, the ghosts of the Civil War dead, the President of the United States of America or the reader & the writer. Bardo reminds that we are all human beings vying for love, peace and respect, however misguided our means to get these things sometimes are.

By opening ourselves up to Saunders’ visions of an afterlife, of the “Bardo” (a term for the Tibetan, limbo-like place between life and death), we let our imagination co-mingle with his imagination. In some ways it is like a dark children’s book (something Saunders’ has approached before with 2005’s novella The Brief But Frightening Reign of Phil), more than a foray into the supernatural, where the limits of possibility aren’t yet completely defined so we approach the world with an open heart and mind, letting our adult experiences melt away in a loving positivity. In a time of fake news, alternative facts and the ever expanding chasm between American experiences, Lincoln in the Bardo is a reminder that this feeling of divide and helplessness has plagued the nation before but it is creativity, thoughtfulness and the belief in good that was able to end it.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.