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George Saunders Re-Imagines A President's Grief With 'Lincoln In The Bardo'

Willie Lincoln was only 11 when he died in February 1862 of typhoid fever. The Lincolns' third son was said to be their favorite, and after Willie was interred in a borrowed mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, his father, Abraham Lincoln, returned to that cemetery several times. Newspapers reported that the president visited the crypt to open his son's coffin and hold his body.

It's that image, of Lincoln cradling the corpse of his beloved son in a Pietà pose, that inspires George Saunders' first novel, called Lincoln in the Bardo. Though it's early to say, I feel pretty safe in predicting that this is going to be one of the year's most acclaimed novels.

Lincoln in the Bardo is searing, inventive and bizarre. This is Saunders, after all, whose imagination effortlessly mashes together the hell-fire visions of Hieronymus Bosch with crude Middle-School anatomical humor and the deadpan surrealism of Rod Serling.

There's always method to Saunders' madness, and here it forces readers to realize, as if for the first time, the ultimate oddness of our own existence; namely, that there's an end to it; that we and everyone we love are going to die.

The action of Lincoln in the Bardo is mostly confined within the iron gates of Oak Hill Cemetery (which still exists, by the way.) A voice, identified as one "hans vollman" opens the novel with a reminiscence: "On our wedding day," [hans tells us] I was forty-six, she was eighteen." Another voice, that of one elise traynor soon announces, "I was too early departed."

Saunders' chatty dead are stuck in what Tibbetan Buddhists call "the bardo" — a limbo-like state where the fears and desires they harbored when they were alive are magnified.

Saunders goes on to amplify this central idea of being stuck: the newly interred Willie is trapped in the bardo by his yearning to keep seeing his father, during those heartbreaking pilgrimages Lincoln pays to the crypt; Lincoln himself is stranded in grief; and, of course, the nation finds itself stalled in a transitional state, mired in the blood and gore of the Civil War. The impossibility and, yet, the dire necessity of moving on are the opposing forces that wrestle with each other in this profound novel.

If this overview makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem too static, too reminiscent of that sluggish classic Spoon River Anthology, be assured that the wild plot swerves of Saunders' short stories have been transplanted and multiplied in his debut novel: Old Testament angels (who may be demons in disguise) pay the cemetery dwellers an apocalyptic visit; the ghosts of slaves rise up from their segregated "sick boxes" (as the dead call their coffins) just outside the iron gates and integrate the lily-white Oak Hill Cemetery; and in a moving climactic scene, the legions of the dead swarm the unknowing Lincoln when he visits Willie.

Saunders' speaks in a hundred tongues here, concocting words like "skim walking" to describe the peculiar way the dead navigate the cemetery and taking us deep into Lincoln's grief. Here are some of Lincoln's staccato thoughts, as he sits in that mausoleum, holding Willie and grappling with his death and the mounting deaths of the Civil War:

One thing bothers me about this extraordinary novel — more of a question, really, than a quibble. Throughout Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses chapters packed with quotes from historical sources. He gives citations for these historical sources and some are legit — like Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln, for instance. But other sources are made up. All the historical passages are tossed together indiscriminately.

It's not like Saunders is doing anything new here: novelists have been playing with historical narrative since the term "postmodern" was invented. But, I wonder if just in the past couple of months, our taste and tolerance for this kind of melding of fact and fiction has diminished? Like I say, it's a question. What's not a question is the achievement of Lincoln in the Bardo. Like the president who graces its pages, it's monumental.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.