Over the past few years I have become steadily disappointed with George Saunders short stories. I think his debut Civilwarland in Bad Decline suffered from repetition, I consider Pastoralia a masterpiece and from there onwards meh to ok. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel and I was inwardly hoping that some of that mischievous spark that populated his early work would crop up again.
Rest assured that Lincoln in the Bardo is brilliant. It is a return to Saunders offbeat humor, it’s also touching and goes into deeper territories that I did not expect. It also doubles up as a flowing entertaining read.
The book is based on a real life happening; the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, aged 11. From there historical accuracy is dodgy as Willie soul enters a limbo with other lost souls, or to be more precise souls who refuse to admit that they are dead and move on. As the book progresses we find out how these souls/ghosts entered the bardo which provide Saunders to tackle weighty topics such as racism and the wanton destruction that war brings. If I am not over interpreting the book, I would say that Saunders is mirroring the mistakes that have happened in the past with what is happening now i.e. there isn’t any change. Another theme is grief and how to progress it has to be accepted, something obviously difficult.
Once Willie accepts his fate then he is set free, something which shakes up the bardo and causes the other souls to realise their situation.
Lincoln in the Bardo will divide people due to it’s format. Instead of chunks of text we are presented with snippets of dialogue from the ghosts in the Bardo, historical documents, quotes from historians about Lincoln and his son’s death and observations from people who were around Lincoln at the time. Some of the quotes contrast each other while the quips from the ghosts relate the novels plot and the major themes. It seems like a mess but in reality a coherent story emerges, with some amazing scenes that will stick in the brain for a while . Probably this format adds to the fact that the book can be read in one sitting.
Although I know the term is over used but I think I can say that Lincoln in the Bardo can be seen as a future classic.