February, 1862. As music plays downstairs for the Lincolns’ party, “Willie” Lincoln lies in bed in the White House, slowly succumbing to a sudden fever. His father, tormented by the loss of his young son, begins to visit Willie’s body after it is laid to rest in the churchyard. What Lincoln doesn’t realize is that a crowd of departed souls is watching him—from a waiting place known as the Bardo—and moved by the love that is shown to the boy who has left the living world outside the iron gates. Thrown into action by the chance of returning to society, if through the grief-stricken Lincoln, the host of the ghostly figures attempts to bring about his intervention in their present circumstances, while reminiscing about the lives they left behind.

Touted as historical fiction, George Saunders’s debut novel pushes forward a new form of alternate history in its exploration of the afterlife. Much like a play, the novel is made up of exchanges of dialogue, where characters’ voices overlap with each other and events taking place. More striking is Saunders’s use of historical and pseudo-historical excerpts to paint a portrait of life during the 1860s and the diverse opinions formed around Willie’s death, the Civil War, and Lincoln himself. This creates a fluid narrative, and one that is as much fantasy as it is history. While I found the mix of fact and fiction a little jarring at first, and potentially misleading, over the course of the book it became effective as a new kind of speculative genre, quite different from historical fiction proper.

Lincoln, ever larger than life in the American psyche, is here made slightly closer to us through his obsessive grief for his son Willie. The imagery of Lincoln holding his decaying son could not be more shocking, although as seen through the eyes of our ghostly guides—a chatty duo named Roger Bevins, III, and Hans Vollman—we are led to view it as a moment of catharsis rather than pure tragedy. As for Willie, acceptance of death comes more easily, in spite of his longing to be with his father in life. Willie’s resignation to his place in the Bardo, stuck between life and death, is something that he takes for granted, and as described in Saunders’s excerpts, he takes it rather stoically, like a much older person.

Unlike Willie, most of the inhabitants of the Bardo are discontent with their placement and seemingly interminable waiting. Much of the book revolves around these characters lamenting their past lives and lingering desires, in a particularly grating pseudo-Victorian voice. While an effort to mimic 1800s dialect is understandable, the attempt in this book comes across strangely, vaguely reminiscent of Dickens but too twee and expository to be authentic.

Saunders places his would-be side characters center stage, but his devices for generating empathy are peculiar. The driving motive of nearly every one of his ghost-characters focuses around sexual fantasies and escapades, described in great detail. I grew quickly tired of reading about body parts and bedroom scenes verging on soft porn; it did little for the character development and was extremely uncomfortable to read between very serious depictions of Abraham Lincoln’s grief. I am not particularly a Lincoln fan, but this treatment felt actually disrespectful.

But what of Lincoln, and Willie, and the historical elements?

There were opportunities in this book to delve deeply into the character of the president, religious views on death, and race relations. Unfortunately, while Saunders makes a nod to each of these subjects, he substitutes his fictional characters’ emotional-sexual drives for any real exploration of the bigger topics. We learn that people in the 1800s had different impressions of Lincoln’s appearance and personality—interesting, but not original. We see an existential crisis in the person of Reverend Thomas, who does not understand why he, who has always tried to lead a faithful life, is stuck in the Bardo instead of in Paradise. (Rather cruelly, Saunders never resolves this question.) There are several black characters, but sadly these individuals remain cliched “types” rather than fully developed characters, and their appearances seem more of an afterthought than a key to the story. One chapter of the book describing the slaughter of the Civil War contrasted with Willie’s death is particularly strong, but Saunders does not build upon this moral dilemma to any satisfactory conclusion. Readers looking for a thorough commentary on the Civil War or Lincoln’s leadership will be disappointed.

Finally, there is the Bardo itself: the transitional spiritual world where souls go after death and before rebirth, according to Buddhist belief. The trouble with Saunders’s Bardo is that it mixes in elements from Christianity, including questions of the nature of God and visions of divine judgment. If Bardo is a real place—the premise of the novel—then why go into questions that would be irrelevant? This loose rendering of Buddhist and Christian beliefs, mixed together in a weird, ill-defined setting, is poised to offend people of both religious backgrounds and leave unbelievers disturbed.

On that note—while this book seems written for those unused to (or uncomfortable) thinking about death, I cannot recommend this book to anyone who is. Even as someone who is unconcerned about dying, I thought the book was depressing. Some vague redemption is offered to Lincoln, but the other characters—those actually residing in the Bardo—are plagued by anxiety, confusion, lust, and bitterness, only briefly relieved when they come together for a moment to help Willie. Even while God is firmly depersonalized in the narrative, a heavy sense of Fate is substituted. If one approaches all writings about the afterlife as speculative, Saunders’s is, in any case, the least compelling.

8 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

  1. This is easily one of the more interesting premises I’ve encountered in a novel — a shame it was wasted on trivialities. I don’t know why ghosts would want sex….you’d think they’d be happy to be free of the constant distraction of their mortal appetites!

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  2. Great review.

    At the very least, this sounds unusual. Too bad that it falls short in so many ways as, Basel on your commentary, the author sounds like he threw some imagination into this. With that, forays into the afterlife can be tricky for a writer

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    1. Yes, my expectations were pretty high since this was an award-winning novel. 😉 I think the idea was intriguing but maybe the scope of what he was trying to do overwhelmed the concept.

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  3. I always like your straight forward reviews. I appreciate the honesty. This doesn’t sound like a book I’d read. Actually the premise of Willie and Lincoln reminds me of William Faulkner’s first short story ever published in a national magazine in 1930. It was called “A Rose for Emily,” a story about Emily Grierson, a woman of southern aristocracy who lives alone after a failed love affair decades before in her youth. After her death, the corpse of her lover from so long ago is found in bed in her house, a gray hair on the pillow next to him, indicating that it was Emily’s custom to sleep with the desiccated corpse.
    My best to you,
    Dean

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    1. That sounds quite unpleasant! 😆 I haven’t read any of Faulkner’s short stories yet, but I will keep that one in mind. I really hope these are all not based on true events…

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  4. talk about mixing apples and oranges! Tibetan Buddhism vs. Victorian politics… and as much sex as he thinks will make the book sell… well, i guess it did, but it still doesn’t seem worth reading to me: brave of you to tackle it, though; i know i couldn’t or wouldn’t have done it… i think you ought to finish your book so modern lit culture will have something worthwhile to read!

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    1. Aw thank you! I suppose I’m setting myself up for a scathing review from Saunders haha. Really though, I’m touched that you remembered the book and feel it’s worth finishing. I’m just about ready to return to it. 🙂

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