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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Published by Random House on February 14, 2017

The dead want nothing so much as to be loved. At least, that’s what we are told by the dead characters in Lincoln in the Bardo.

Much of the novel, in fact, consists of conversations held by dead characters. They watch, and comment upon, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, who soon joins them.

That death and the circumstances surrounding it also the subject of scholarly commentary and contemporaneous documents (often less than scholarly) that are liberally quoted, snippets woven together to make chapters of their own. The same technique is used to construct chapters about the Civil War dead, displeasure with Lincoln’s presidency, and criticism of Lincoln’s parenting style.

The dead turn to Willie for inspiration as he tries to remain in the material world, hoping to see his father once more. Some of the (dead) characters, however, believe that Willie needs to move on, although they have not done so themselves. In fact, their inability to accept death, to accept their own deaths, just as Lincoln struggled to accept his son’s death, seems to be the point of the story. Acceptance of anything that holds us back is liberating.

Parts of the novel, particularly the dialog of spirits who criticize and backbite each other, are quite funny. In a random assembly of the deceased, sins are confessed, grievances are aired, secrets are revealed. The dead have been silent too long, and Willie’s appearance, his ability to communicate with his father, albeit briefly, gives them a chance to be heard. Or so they hope. Mostly they want one more chance to talk about themselves, just as they did before they died.

Parts of the novel, particularly Lincoln’s thoughts of his lost son, are quite moving. And parts, suggesting that bigotry and pettiness survive death, would be depressing if they were not lightened by the humor that pervades the story.

I give George Saunders credit for inventiveness. I’ve never read a work of fiction quite like Lincoln in the Bardo. The story has a worthy message about the burden of suffering that we all carry in varying degrees, and our responsibility to lighten the load of others when we can. I can’t say I was entirely captivated by the story Saunders tells, but it made me laugh, and it made me think. Any novel that consistently does those things merits a recommendation.


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