Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

I'll go ahead and begin with the controversial statement, to get that out of the way: I'm not the biggest Saunders fan. 

I realize that may have already cost me many readers, so if you're still here, thanks!  

Here's my thing with Saunders: I like his stuff fine, and there's no denying that he's talented. But reading his short stories, which I'll admit I have only read a handful of, I can't help but notice that each and every one is too much alike in tone and style for my taste. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was imaginative and it made me laugh, but each vignette seemed to me like a carbon copy of all the others, even though the narrators and characters were supposed to be different. To me, Saunders almost feels like a brand. He does what he does, and that works for him. 

But I was interested in reading and reviewing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, out next Tuesday, for two reasons: 1. I knew it was going to make a splash and wanted to see what all the advance hype was about, and 2. I am a Lincoln fanatic through and through. This latter point is due to the fact that I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the "Land of Lincoln," where "Honest Abe" is even more lionized than in the rest of the country. My adolescence was spent visiting Lincoln's home, Lincoln's tomb, Lincoln's Law Office, the Old State Capitol where Lincoln once walked, and later on, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Lincoln was everywhere and everything. 

Still, I wager that it's hard for anyone growing up anywhere to know even a little bit about our 16th President and not admire the guy. Lincoln is a fascinating character, and there's a reason Saunders chose him as the subject for his first novel. Except...this book isn't really about Lincoln at all. No, Saunders instead focuses on a topic that is sure to win him many accolades: the value of life as perceived through the lens of death. I'll leave the discussion on whether or not that's by design to others. 

Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story. Half of it is told through snippets of historical biographies and eyewitness accounts about the Lincolns, and half is an ethereal "play," told through dialogue of hundreds of different characters. The story centers on the death of Lincoln's third son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862, when he was just 11 years old. If you ever visit the Lincoln museum in Springfield, this exhibit may be seared in your mind like it is in mine: Willie Lincoln sick in bed, his mother fretting over him, holding his hand in hers, as an aggrieved Abraham walks through the door to check on them both. Behind him, floating up the White House stairs, wafts the sounds of a brass band playing a waltz. The Lincolns were throwing an elaborate party while Willie lay dying, but this sad scene provides only the impetus for Saunders' story. 

“Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.”
— George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

The rest of the novel takes place in a graveyard over the course of one night, and is narrated by a ghostly trio who find and befriend Willie Lincoln after he wakes up in that strange new place, stuck between life and afterlife. When Lincoln himself, moved by grief over his loss, visits the graveyard and opens Willie's casket, hoping to catch one final glimpse of his son, the other spirits are fascinated. No other living person has ever bothered to visit them, much less hold and caress their lifeless bodies. When they additionally learn that his father is president, Willie becomes a sort of celebrity, and the others gather around him to try to tell him their stories. 

The result is a bizarre, spooky, but ultimately moving meditation on the nature of grief, life and regret. All of the spirits whose voices we hear are in denial over their situation, and they all wish to "get well" so they can right some wrong or finish something they left undone. A few realize that it's too late for them, and they are reluctant to let go what life they had "in that other place" and move on to what's next. It's a sorry state to imagine anyone in, and Saunders evinces sympathy and compassion for each of his characters, even the less deserving ones. 

Of course, the book is also riotously funny. It seems a strange subject to find humor in, but as with his short stories, Saunders manages to skillfully balance the heavy with the lighthearted. Lincoln in the Bardo solidified my respect for Saunders. It's imaginative, meditative, hilarious, and will, I'm sure, be one of the best novels of the year. 

Lincoln in the Bardo is released on Tuesday, February 14. Reserve your copy now