Being obsessed with my own mortality, perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders may not be the best choice when I decided to take a break from mystery novels, my literary equivalent of “comfort food”. However, I had read a lot of favorable press on the Saunders book and I was curious.
Bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhists, is a kind of existence between death and rebirth. The Lincoln of the title refers not to the town car but U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself.
The novel, which takes place during one momentous night in 1862 in a Washington DC cemetery, depicts President Lincoln, unaware of the fact he is being watched by ghosts, grieving at the graveside of his young son, Willie, who has died of a fever.
And here’s the kicker: the ghosts who serve as narrators for the majority of the novel are not aware they are dead. (Any relation to the current administration is strictly a matter of chance.) The ghosts refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and the planet they inhabited while alive as “that other place”. There is a middle-aged man who was about to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; a conflicted homosexual brooding about a lost love, an elderly clergyman and a coarse and rather vulgar husband and wife duo (There are other ghostly voices, too, including the late Willie Lincoln!)
Let me be honest or as I refer to it, my literary equivalent of hara-kiri.
I was unfamiliar with the works of George Saunders. Judging from some of the names on the back of the book, though, Mr. Saunders is a short story master (Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel). No less a literary luminary than Dave Eggers wrote that Mr. Saunders is “… no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity.” (in other words, “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” or something like that) and Zadie Smith claims” not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny.” (Her claims may be”greatly exaggerated.”) The publishers have also recruited such literary lions as Khaled Hosseni, Lorrie Moore and (gasp!) Thomas Pyncheon to write blurbs on the back cover of Mr. Saunders’ debut novel. So who am I, a mere English major, to argue about Mr. Saunders brilliance, both as a short fiction master and a novelist?
Incidentally. a website called openculture.com (which I am familiar with) has assembled a collection of Mr. Saunders’ vaunted short fiction, The New York Times online video section has a ten-minute video inspired by Lincoln in the Bardo, a feature film version is in the works (good luck with that! ) and interviews with Mr. Saunders are available online on various sites including youtube.