Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel, by George Saunders

My first introduction to George Saunders’ writing was in Tenth of December, a collection of short stories that were as humane examples of prose as you might find anywhere. Saunders writes with a full respect for his characters, no matter what circumstances they exist in.

That same respect for character comes out clearly in this book. It says “novel” in the title, but it feels more like an extended prose poem, a celebration of a parade of people with their lovely idiosyncrasies and unique voices. I listened to the Audible version and if you’re an Audible member it’s worth the time. Over 150 narrators, some brilliant some so-so, were required to bring the book to life and it makes for a unique book experience. I may take on the book again with hard copy in lap and audio book in my earpiece. I did this with Wallace’s Infinite Jest and it made for an interesting read. (I kept the book open to the endnotes while the audio book read the main text.)

The text of Lincoln in the Bardo is almost like reading two books. One deals with the death of Willie Lincoln during the first full year of the Civil War. It’s presented with a series of witnesses from historical sources, replete with footnotes, such as the Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, President Lincoln’s secretaries, and diarists of the period. I’m a Lincoln obsessive myself, so many of the quotes were familiar.

The second part of the book deals with contemporary characters finding themselves in the Bardo (the Tibetan existence between reincarnations … purgatory with an exit door) reviewing their lives and experiences both there an on the physical earth they’ve left behind. Some are hilarious, some tragic. I don’t think I noticed even the most minor person brought into the fray that seemed artificial or contrived.

As prose it often reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, but the work is poetic enough that you may also remind you of Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, the dead speaking in their own defense for the lives they lived.

This is an unabashedly literary book but unlike many in that oeuvre it’s completely readable and emotionally compelling. It would make a great book for high school English classes and I’m sure we’ll see it banned in school libraries soon for the usual reasons.