EW review of George Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
Opening a George Saunders book feels like falling into a lucid dream: a world so fantastically vivid and strange that it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to wake up and find some new, untraceable stamp on your passport. A master of the short form for more than two decades, Saunders has finally produced his first full length novel — though that word hardly begins to convey the literary wonder contained within its pages, an extraordinary alchemy of free-verse ghost story, tender father-son devotional, and backdoor presidential biography.
While Bardo (a Tibetan term for the liminal state between life and death) bears Abraham Lincoln’s name and is inspired by a lesser-known episode in his life — the loss of 11-year-old Willie, his youngest and most beloved child, to typhoid — it uses him mostly as a supporting player, a living link to the vast cast of characters that populate the cemetery in which nearly all of the narrative is set. Dozens of souls trapped somewhere between this mortal coil and whatever lies on the other side, they’re dearly (and often messily) departed but don’t know it, emerging from the coffins they call “sickboxes” to fret and wander and obsessively recount the unfinished business left behind. Among the graveyard’s permanent guests — a teeming mass that includes a stern, eloquent reverend, a dreamy young man driven to suicide by a lover’s rejection, a perpetually sloshed married couple, and a dandyish trio of top-hatted bachelors — only one receives a regular visitor: Little Willie, whose devastated father returns to his crypt nightly to hold the boy in his arms, even as he struggles to accept that “the essential thing (that which was borne, that which we loved) is gone.”
Slipping between hallucinatory fragments of dialogue and real historical accounts, Saunders weaves a wild high-wire pastiche. He’s always been a dazzlingly clever voice in fiction, but Bardo is something else: a heartfelt marvel, sad and funny and surreal. A