George Saunders is highly regarded as a short story writer, gaining recognition and accolades like the O.Henry Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. When he announced the publication of his first novel, the literary world held its breath in anticipation, wondering what the acclaimed writer would do with his departure from the short story form. What we got—Lincoln in the Bardo—is one of the strangest, funniest, and most heartbreaking novels in recent memory.
The novel, set in 1862, concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln‘s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie. A few long hours leads to a fever that won’t break. Everyone knows young Willie isn’t doing well, but Abraham and Mary Todd are obligated to hold one of their lavish parties anyway. Throughout the night, both parents check on Willie, but it’s too late.
Guilt plagues Abraham Lincoln and his wife as they lay him to rest in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. If only they had forgone the party that night. If only Lincoln wasn’t—at that moment—responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers as the Civil War builds to a frenzy. It takes everything in his power to leave Willie behind and keep moving.
It is only after Willie’s funeral, when everyone has left, that the characters of the Bardo appear. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas comprise the youngster’s slapdash welcoming crew. In this halfway point between life and death, the people of the cemetery don’t really believe they’re dead; they’re just in their “sick-boxes” waiting to rejoin their loved ones.
As the reader finds out, the people here have refused to let go of the “previous place,” where they can’t quite remember what life was like, but they repeat the stories that leave them longing for what never happened in life. Hans Vollman, for example, married a woman much younger than himself. Rather than force himself on her on their wedding night, he took the time to build a friendship with her, which then blossomed into romantic love.
On the day the couple was to finally consummate their union, he is hit in the head by a beam in his workshop, never knowing the love of his dear wife. It’s only in true Saunders fashion that, in the Bardo, Hans Vollman has a constant, unceasing erection from the failure to satisfy his anticipation. The way he does this is subtle, but when you realize what “member” everyone is talking about, it becomes the funniest thing.
Tragically, Roger Bevins III, slit his wrists in the previous place, but he believes he’s still on his kitchen floor waiting for his family to find him. In life, his “proclivity,” as he calls it, was a love for men. But his lover decides to “live the right way” and ends their relationship leaving him despondent. It is only at the moment when it’s too late that he realizes he wants nothing more than to live. In the Bardo, Bevins has ears and eyes that appear at the slightest sensory input because he’s all too eager to take in everything all at once.
Unfortunately, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins know that children cannot stay in the Bardo for long before horrible things start to happen to them. But they cannot convince young Willie to let go.
Saunders’ narrative shifts seamlessly from the surreal to the tragic. Lincoln must grapple the weight of grief, while Willie must come to terms with the fact of his death even though he can’t bear to leave his father behind. The novel’s finest moments show the inner workings of the president’s mind as he weighs the meaning of his sorrow with the overarching theme of death that extends from the Bardo to the battlefields of the war.
What’s incredible about Lincoln in the Bardo is its structure. Many writers have drawn acclaim for their manipulation of conventional form, but Saunders’ work is stunning for the sheer amount of research it must have taken to build the fabric of certain pieces of the narrative. For example, the night of Willie’s death/the Lincoln’s party, Saunders tells the story with excerpts from real primary sources and historical texts along with made up sources and texts. Some of them agree, some do not, but they allow for the reader to see various texts working in concert to form a completely new piece of art.
Even paragraphs in the Bardo scenes are attributed to specific characters, almost as if it were a play. The multiple perspectives from myriad voices are the product of painstaking effort on Saunders’ part.
While it takes a few chapters to get used to Saunders’ style, Lincoln in the Bardo is well worth the effort, and I imagine many people can finish it in one sitting. This compelling story of a father losing his son, fighting with grief and guilt while also shaping the landscape of the United States is unabashedly ambitious and completely unmissable.