Review: George Saunders' "Lincoln in the Bardo"
From the little my manager relayed about George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo –that it was a book about the death of Lincoln’s son Willie and containedhistorical evidence about the Civil War and fictional narratives centered around Willie – I was intrigued. However, what I found impressed me beyond mere intrigue.
Saunders bases his entire novel off the fact that, after his son’s death, President Lincoln goes to the graveyard to hug the dead body. Through this one idea, Saunders creates two different narrative threads: a historical one that details the time period and information about the Lincoln family, and a fictional one that depicts ghosts in limbo between life and death who observe the President’s ritual of coming to visit his deceased son. The effect is a fascinating one where, in both sections, multiple sources and voices join to tell the story. This results in a dynamic and multi-dimensional novel that finds its roots in the author’s ability to link together varied personalities with historical fact. Saunders also chooses to write in free verse form which, though it takes getting used to, allows the reader to move unheeded through the differing sources.
I particularly admired Saunders’ creativity in constructing personalities for his many ghosts. They vary from perverse and inappropriate to funny and sarcastic, from silent and pensive to intelligent and long-winded. Also, all of the ghosts have a unique backstory and a resulting manifestation that pertains to how they arrived at the “bardo” and who they had been when they lived. While Saunders creates many ghosts, three of them in particular play significant roles: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Through these observant ghosts, the reader learns about other characters and also about the entrance of Willie Lincoln into their world.
Saunders’ skilled interweaving of historical sources creates a unique perspective on President Lincoln and his historical time-period. Through Saunders’ writing, the reader experiences Lincoln’s pain as he perseveres through his son’s death, precisely as he needs to make decisions that will cause the deaths of hundreds of other men. However, my favorite parts of the historical narrative were when Saunders uses multiple sources to address the same moment - or even includes multiple descriptions of something as specific as the food at a particular dinner party. With this, the reader recognizes the nuance of each moment. For example, the fact that different authors cite Lincoln’s eyes as brown, grey or blue made me see this very recognizable president as more inaccessible than I originally thought.
However, this book is not for the faint of heart. It is confusing and crass at times, and complexities of race, loss, and love belie Saunders’ humor. Even though I laughed through many of the chapters, Saunders’ writing caused me to reconsider my understanding of history and face the reality of death. In addition, Saunders boldly confronts people’s ability to do evil. Within the various backstories, Saunders deals with same-sex, forbidden, and unrequited love. He covers the beggars and the thieves, the warriors and the cowards, the masters and the slaves. While there are ghosts the reader inevitably loves, there are also ghosts whom the reader can’t sympathize with because of their past actions.
Armed with that knowledge, I recommend this novel whole-heartedly. First, Saunders demonstrates his clear capability as a writer in every sentence and every character. Second, I underlined countless phrases that he used because I liked them so much. Finally, at the work’s core, Saunders handles love and death in a way that takes the reader along for an unforgettable ride.