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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Book Name: Lincoln in the Bardo
Author: George Saunders
Publisher(s): Random House (US) Bloomsbury Publishing (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Literary Fiction
Release Date: February 14, 2017

Welcome to the inaugural column for the new series Fantastic Literature. As part of this series, I hope to explore new and new-to-me writers and works of literary fiction that include genre elements.

Just like the bookshelves in most bookstores, the two categories are often considered to be miles apart. And fans of each category carry around a lot of stereotypes about literary fiction and genre fiction. Literary fiction is all character, no plot; genre fiction is all plot, no character. Literary fiction is boring, genre fiction is frivolous.

Genre fans can feel looked down upon by lit-fic fans (a feeling reinforced by bookshelf placement). Despite the fact that science fiction and fantasy are increasingly omnipresent in pop culture, it’s hard for genre fans to shake off the chip on our collective shoulders.

But the truth is the distance between those categories may not be as big as we think. Works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, Ursula K. Le Guin, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Kurt Vonnegut have been published by the Library of America. Kelly Link was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. And literary writers like Michael Chabon, Justin Cronin, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, Cormac McCarthy, Gary Shteyngart, and Colson Whitehead have used genre elements to tell their stories. And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale premieres on Hulu this month.

So think of this series as a way to prove those stereotypes wrong and to build a bridge between the categories that will lead fans of both categories closer to the other side.

Lincoln in the Bardo (cover)And with that in mind, let’s take a look at Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; a tale of death, ghosts, and more.

To me, Saunders seemed like a perfect fit for this column. He’s published in places like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and GQ. His first short story was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and he was a finalist for the National Book Award. But he has also won a World Fantasy Award for “CommComm,” a short story that appeared in The New Yorker. His stories also include many genre elements and a dark, cynical sense of humor, earning him comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut. Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders’s first novel, and it is a moving story about grief, loss, regret, and finding hope amid those emotions.

The book was inspired by a trip Saunders took to Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. Passing by Oak Hill Cemetery, Saunders learned that in 1862, Lincoln’s son Willie was briefly interred there in a borrowed tomb, and the President visited the cemetery several times. Newspapers reported that he even opened his son’s casket and held his boy’s body. This image—a new take on the Pieta—stuck with Saunders and formed the heart of the book.

The term bardo comes from the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A bardo is a period of transition between states of consciousness: asleep and awake, dead and reborn. The book takes place over a single night, and during those handful of hours, Saunders explores a President teetering between perseverance and collapse, a nation teetering between united and fractured, and ghosts trapped between this world and the next.

The cemetery is filled with ghosts who don’t view themselves as dead, but merely ill, rising each night from their “sick box.” They each hold onto some regret, some failing, some memory, or something from their life that prevents them from moving onto the next world and affects their physical manifestation. For example, Roger Bevins III committed suicide when rejected by his lover. In his last living moments, he was struck by how he would miss out on all of life’s beauty. Accordingly, he appears as a collection of innumerable eyes, noses, and hands so that he can take in that beauty. Hans Vollman died on the day he and his much younger wife were finally planning on consummating their marriage, so he appears with an enormous erection. And Reverend Early’s face permanently displays a state of fear and shock because—well, better not spoil that one. The ghosts gossip, judge, carouse. Even in death, even transformed, they are incredibly human in all the best and worst ways.

Amid this crowd, Willie’s ghost appears. Children typically transition quickly because they do not have severe regrets. If they remain, they become encased in a painful carapace that fuses them to their surroundings. Wanting more time with his father, Willie decides to stay. Bevins, Vollman, and Early—struck by Lincoln’s love for his son and the tremendous grief he is experiencing—decide to lead a charge of ghosts to persuade the President to return to his son’s grave one more time, so that the two Lincolns can let go and move on to that next state of consciousness: the afterlife and the life after a son’s death.

The manner in which the story is told will either intrigue readers and pull them in deeper into the story or prove too strange and push them away. The book is written like the script of a play, with each speaker’s name listed after his or her line. Interspersed among character dialogue are snippets of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, books, and historical accounts (many real, many fictional) that provide historical context. This is a story told through a multi-faceted conversation. While it can have a fractured, disorienting feeling in the beginning, by the book’s end, the voices have come together in harmony, forming a powerful momentum, an avalanche that drives the reader toward an emotional finale.

Lincoln in the Bardo (cover)And there are a lot of characters. 166 in fact (the audiobook hired an incredible list of actors and comedians to voice each and every one of them). And while, of course, some of them probably could have been edited out, Saunders somehow manages—no matter how brief the passing glance—to perform a deep dive on each character. A striking detail, a unique voice, a wicked bit of irony keep the crowd of ghosts from becoming a pale blur.

The form of storytelling may be strange, and Saunders’s characters might be even stranger, but through it all, the book develops a tremendous amount of sympathy and empathy between reader and character, among the characters themselves, and, ultimately, for all of humanity. In this book, the ghosts are able to cohabitate with the living and with one another. By walking in another’s shoes, thoughts, memories, and emotions are passed between the two identities. They discover each other’s sufferings and how they have pain in common, just as Lincoln realizes his grief is an echo of the thousands who have lost sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers in the Civil War. This spectral sharing saves the story from collapsing under the pain of loss. We are all suffering (an idea Saunders, himself a Buddhist, would be familiar with), but in this shared pain, we can find commonality, sympathy, and love that allows us to move forward and move on.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous work of heart, humor (smart and scatological), and hope. Fans of literary fiction will love the deep characterization; genre fans will enjoy the weirder, otherworldly aspects; and I think both camps will be moved with Saunders’s exploration of big ideas and profound emotion. Saunders has indeed created a piece of fantastic literature.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Steph says:

    What a great idea for a column! This is one of the next books I plan to read. I’ll come back and read your review after I’ve read the book. (I’m quirky that way.) 🙂

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