There are some novels that endlessly resist being succinctly qualified or explained in a way that enlightens the reader quickly and meaningfully as to whether or not they would be interested in reading such a book. These novels are paradoxes in themselves; a student once explaining the phenomenon to me perfectly through declaring Langston Hughes’ Harlem to be “depressingly uplifting.” That wondrous paradox seems to me to be the full function of great literature, or at least what much of it attempts to achieve. Just like all people, novels are multiplicities: containing at once profusions of happiness, sadness, hopes, dreams, realizations, darknesses, and memories, almost all of which existing in conflict in some way. It is this conflict within a person that, when brought to light and examined emphatically and empathetically, in literature creates some of the most memorable and beloved characters in history, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to August Wilson’s Troy Maxson in Fences.
But often these characters are achieved because we spend so much time with them. In Hamlet we have what can feel like a neverending cavalcade of soliloquies and monologues ebbing forth from the young prince. These give great insight into his psyche, but Hamlet‘s length is much noted, and perhaps works against the play at times. In Fences, we get the full impact of what it is like to be Troy Maxson because we are treated to his endless rantings on baseball, fatherhood, marriage, and everything in between. To be frank, Troy and Hamlet have an annoying, similar quality in that they never shut up. And this leads us to George Saunders’ chief problem in writing a novel. Namely, that he is almost too efficient to create such a character. Saunders does not need fifty pages to create a character we are just as attached to as Hamlet or Troy. In fact he barely needs ten. For this reason I can confidently say that I never expected a novel from Saunders. And if I got one, then I certainly did not expect that much out of it; Saunders’ novella’s and longer short stories usually being by far the weakest portions of his collections. Thus, when Lincoln in the Bardo was announced, I was excited, but also a little tentative. How will Saunders manage to give us a single character for so long and maintain what makes his writing so effective? The answer, of course, is clever, and cements Saunders’ already fantastic legacy as one of the greatest writers in American history.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a title with two functions; both of which are literal. A novel about the death of Willie Lincoln in 1862, it first functions as the simplistic taste of the plot of the novel: Willie Lincoln has died and is now existing in the Bardo, a state in which the souls of humanity exist inbetween one life and the next. Yet the title also points to the dual meaning of the word “Bardo,” which can also convey a period of a person’s life in which the norm is suspended indefinitely. While Willie is called to rebirth in the Bardo, Abraham operates in his own Bardo, wondering how life can ever return to normal after the death of his eldest child. Unlike what could be expected from a typical novel, however, Saunders does not simply alternate between the two characters, instead choosing a far more interesting an effective structure in which we spend hardly any time at all directly with Willie or Abraham, allowing him to make full use of his tremendous talent for brevity and efficiency.
The story is told through a variety of lenses. The setting and reality of 1862 is conveyed through “quotes” from historical documents concerning President Lincoln and his time in the White House. These “quotes,” however, are a heavy mixture of fiction and non-fiction, though all are cited, much like Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel, House of Leaves. When we leave “reality” as such, we are primarily given the narrative through the triad eyes of three souls existing alongside Willie Lincoln in the Bardo: Hans Vollman, a man who died on the night before he could consummate his marriage to a much younger bride; Roger Bevins III, a gay man who killed himself after being unable to live a life alongside his lover Gilbert; and the Reverend Everly Thomas, a preacher who was denied entry into Heaven for reasons he cannot discern. The plot consists mainly of these three souls attempting to communicate with Abraham Lincoln in hopes that he will tell Willie that he wants him to move on to the next life without fear- Willie refusing to leave the Bardo due to his attachment to his father, and subsequently being assaulted on all fronts by demons and lost souls attempting to drag him to Hell.
Yet throughout the novel the story is moved from soul to soul, the cast of characters- though I did not count- likely numbering well over twenty. It is this reason that Lincoln in the Bardo shines as a novel, as Saunders finds the perfect vein for his uniquely efficient style. We do not become over familiar with a character, nor does Saunders fall into any heavy handedness. Perhaps just as well as his best short stories, Saunders has managed to write a deeply and profoundly human story in which he fully incorporates everything he has from black humor to the incredible ability to pull deep meaning and familiarity from the most absurd crevices of the human imagination. Like his best short stories, Lincoln in the Bardo feels like it is suddenly over, ending before a reader is ready despite having more closure than any short story I’ve read from Saunders since CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It reads as the culmination of everything Saunders has created so far.
Now we must ask: what will he do next?
Recommended to: This novel stands completely on its own as a masterpiece that is both accessible while maintaining artistic integrity.Yet it is such a wonderful blend of postmodernism and historical fiction that it’s also almost a perfect entry point into more difficult reads such Mason & Dixon. While not for everyone, it is a high recommend for most.
Avoid as if it is losing your queen to a pawn: As with other non-linear narratives, there are just some readers who don’t enjoy them. Lincoln in the Bardo jumps more often than most, but it also does it better than most. It’s difficult to say someone shouldn’t at least attempt to read it.