Review: Saunders' 'Lincoln in the Bardo' a moving, surreal novel of death and life

Published Feb. 8, 2017

The narrators of George Saunders' novel Lincoln in the Bardo do not recognize President Abraham Lincoln, even though it's 1862 and the Civil War is raging like wildfire.

Those characters just see Lincoln as "an exceedingly tall and unkempt fellow. ... all elbows and knees," who may or may not be sobbing.

How could they know who the great man is, or what personal tragedy has struck him, or how the country is shattered by war? The passage of time ended for them some ways back. They're dead — and they don't even know that.

Saunders has been disorienting readers — in the best possible way — since the mid 1990s in acclaimed short fiction collections such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Tenth of December. His formal innovation, beautiful use of language and signature blend of postmodernism and surrealism are compelling — but what really resonates in his fiction is its deep sense of empathy, even for the strangest of characters in the most bizarre situations.

Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, is a showcase for all of those qualities. Saunders says he didn't set out to write a novel (see interview, Page 3L), but readers can be glad he did. As a full-time book critic, I rarely read a single book straight through, because I'm always shifting among several. Lincoln in the Bardo was an exception, because I couldn't put it down, reading it in a single afternoon.

The "bardo" of the title is a term from Tibetan Buddhism that refers to a transitional state for souls after death as they await their next incarnation. But Saunders is not writing a religion textbook here; he uses the bardo as a starting point to tell a moving story.

That story takes place in 1862, immediately after the death of Lincoln's beloved son Willie. The boy died, probably of typhoid fever, at age 11, and Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were beside themselves with grief. Willie was "the sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children," bright, affectionate and self-possessed.

After the boy's body was placed in a crypt in a Washington, D.C., cemetery, Lincoln came alone, at night, to mourn. He removed the body from the casket and held it.

That much is historical account, reported in newspapers at the time. Saunders lifts it into the realm of fiction, and eventually transcendence.

Much of that lift comes from his bold decision to give voice to a horde of ghosts. Residents of the cemetery, they come from many walks of life and social classes, and in Saunders' hands they are as lively and intriguing as many of the living.

Dozens of them speak over the course of the novel, but a few come to the fore as a kind of chorus of narrators. Three of them observe the confused spirit of Willie Lincoln in his "white stone home": Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Rev. Everly Thomas. Saunders' ghosts are obsessed with telling their life stories — so much so that on occasion, when one falters, the other ghosts jump in to offer prompts, because they're heard it all so many times before.

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We learn that Vollman was a middle-aged printer with a lovely young wife who was on the trembling edge of consummating their marriage when a beam fell on him. Bevins was a handsome, sensitive young man who in life harbored a secret that was far more perilous 150 years ago: homosexuality. Thomas was an elderly clergyman, a devoted and humble servant of God, who passed after a long life.

All three feel compassion for young Willie but don't expect him to be around long: "These young ones are not meant to tarry." When he does stay — because he believes his father will come for him — the three throw themselves into helping him pass, although they have no idea what he'll pass to. They can only describe the occasion as "the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon."

So why are they hanging around the bardo? Part of the pleasure of this book for the reader is figuring that out, gathering clues to the rules that apply in this little land of the dead, and I won't give too much away.

But we learn that they see one another, and that their appearances are shaped or warped by their experiences in life and death. Vollman, for example, "manifests" naked, with an enormously swollen penis (where the beam fell). Bivens, so sensitive to the world's beauty, has a mouth, eyes and hands that multiply as he speaks, sometimes covering his body. Some manifestations are touching, like the woman followed by orbs with images of the children she left behind; some are terrible.

Some of the ghosts are comic relief, notably Eddie and Betsy Baron, a married couple of roistering, foul-mouthed drunks: "We was low and fell lower." Others are heartbreaking. The only ghosts that can pass through the cemetery's boundaries, ironically, are the spirits of slaves buried in a mass grave just outside the fence. Litzie Wright is a strikingly beautiful young black woman, always mute, dressed in a simple shift with bloody handprints on her hips. Speaking for her is Mrs. Francis Hodge, an older slave woman whose dignified mien is contrasted by her missing feet and hands.

Saunders anchors the wildly imagined world of the ghosts with chapters built of quotations he gleaned from the historical record (and some he made up). Taken largely from newspaper accounts and books about Lincoln's life, they are a familiar framework. They also reveal how slippery that framework can be — single chapters stack up comments on, for example, Lincoln's presidency that range from glowing praise to utter vilification.

Saunders is a satirist and a masterful comic writer, but he is up to something deeper as well. Lincoln in the Bardo is a virtuoso show of surrealism, but it also lets us, along with its ghosts, feel what is in the heart of a father who has lost his boy — and who must face the responsibility of sending countless other boys to battle. It is, finally, a human story, no matter which side of the veil those humans are on.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.