George Saunders has received enormous praise for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I try to be wary of over-hyping, but when one of my several trusted friends spoke so highly of it, I decided to read it. At first, I felt as if it was another “gimmick” novel, but it turned out to be a “gimmick” I have never seen. The first, obvious peculiarity I notice was the structure, but then I became intrigued. The “Bardo” is a Tibetan word for the time after death and before the soul is “taken away.”
According to Wikipedia, Saunders is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children’s books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker as well as other magazines. He was born December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, TX, and he has won a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as several other awards. He lists his influences as Kurt Vonnegut, Pynchon, Flannery O’Conner, John Updike, and Steinbeck. He is a professor at Syracuse University.
The story begins casually enough with a man who marries a woman much younger than himself. On the day after his wedding, he goes to his office, and while seated at his desk, Saunders writes, “A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk. And so while our [honeymoon] must be deferred, while I recovered. Per the advice of my physician, I took to my-- // A sort of sick box was judged to be—hans vollman // Efficacious. roger bevins iii // Efficacious, yes, Thank you, friend. hans vollman // Always a pleasure. roger bevins iii” // There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor, the very parlor through which we had recently (gleefully, guiltily, her hand in mine) passed en route to her bedroom. Then the physician returned, and his assistant carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that—I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed” (5). As I am sure you are aware, hans is dead, as is roger blevins iii. The names appear on the page as if they are scripts for a film. The names of hans, roger, and all the inhabitants of the Bardo are all in lower case with about an 8 point font. The rest of the novel involves conversations of more than forty deceased characters.
When willie appears in the Bardo, the other souls try to reconnect him with his father who pays daily visits his tomb. They believe that a connection to Lincoln can save Willie for a life in the Bardo, so he won’t be "taken away. "
Most of the conversation takes place among, hans, bevins, and the reverend everly thomas. There are some characters who provide a tiny dab of humor. The barons use a stream of obscenities each time they talk, and thankfully, only the first and last letter of each word appears with a dash between them. Another character, actually corrects the grammar of the deceased.
Interspersed with the conversations of the deceased are the italicized thoughts of Abraham Lincoln as he agonizes over the way the Civil War is being conducted, as well as the death of his son willie.
The novel has 108 chapters, some with only a single line of text. Occasionally, Saunders places what appear to be newspaper, magazine articles, and quotes from works of history regarding Willie’s death and Lincoln’s presidency. This 343-page novel can be read in a single sitting.
This interesting novel, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a novel that will keep you in your chair to find out what happens next! 5 stars.