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In his long-awaited debut novel, George Saunders – author of four highly praised short-story collections, among them CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Tenth of December – takes the biggest risk of his singular career to offer readers a deep and moving fever vision of love, accountability and grief. Lincoln in the Bardo takes as its central image the 16th president of the United States, newly embroiled in the Civil War and facing the sudden death of his 11-year-old son, Willie. Most of the novel unfolds first during the decadent White House party that rages while Willie dies in a nearby room and then after the funeral, when Lincoln steals away from the residence in the middle of the night to open the coffin and hold the child once more. But Lincoln is not alone in his secret. The ghosts of the long and recent dead, suspended in the moments before their demise, witness and attempt to intercede.
Saunders’ “bardo” – in Tibetan Buddhism the transitional state between death and rebirth – is home to those souls who cannot accept their physical death (they refer to coffins as “sick-boxes”) and are unable to move on to whatever lies beyond. Melding form with story, the novel employs a chorus of these ghost voices as well as testimonials, true and invented, from the historical record.
“How that beloved boy’s sufferings must have tormented one so naturally sympathetic,” says one of these many voices. Mixing a play-like narrative peopled almost solely by the dead with the kinds of oral history made popular by Peter Manso’s Mailer and George Plimpton’s Truman Capote, Saunders moves from moments of poignant loss and guilt to Rabelaisian humour.
Any radical attempt to usher the art of the novel into new territory will divide readers, but Saunders’ experiment feels necessary. He leads us into a new and unexpected version of the bardo, and for more than 300 pages he forces us to rethink a world (Washington, DC, 1862) we thought we knew. Our only certainty throughout is that our destination remains wholly unknown.
It’s no surprise that this experimental short-story writer’s first novel reads like none that has come before. Love or hate Saunders’ audacity, his effort extends beyond mere literary curiosity and deserves admiration. Its boldness lies in its vision, its attempt to encompass, as Joseph Conrad writes in his preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, the vibration and colour of an era in order to reveal “the substance of its truth”.
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