Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, Random House, 341 pages, $28
There has seldom been a time in American literary history when a book about Lincoln was a bad idea. As H.L. Mencken, among so many, have observed, there are few subjects which remain so dear to the American heart and mind. This novel is, to be sure, the most significant Lincoln book in a while.
To begin with, it is the first full novel of the Syracuse University Professor who is one of the most exceptional writers of our era--George Saunders, whose status as a writer of short stories since “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” has been such that some people think of him as an experimental writer while others think of him as a “humorist” with Twain bloodlines (a confusion not uncommon in New Yorker experimental writing since Donald Barthelme years ago.) Humor, this is not. But nor is a great deal of Twain. Importantly, it IS part of a glorious wave of writers previously known for writing some of America’s most venturesome fiction now roaring to the fore in 2017--postmodern wizard Robert Coover with “Huck Out West,” Steve Erickson with “Shadowbahn” about a future fantasy music-obsessed America where the Twin Towers have suddenly reappeared in the badlands of South Dakota (“They aren’t just the tallest things most people have seen ... The dual monoliths rocked to heaven even as they’re ominously earth bound.”)
In Saunders’ book, the important things to know are: Lincoln is Willie Lincoln, and The Bardo is the Tibetan name for the middle place between one life and the next. It’s what is inhabited by Abraham Lincoln’s tragic 11-year old son Willie who was “too good for this earth” and died in the White House after receiving a pony for a present and insisting on riding it daily, no matter the weather. That led to his illness and death. What we have in this novel suffused with grief is a large chorus of voices telling us about the Lincolns, America, ghosts and graves, as if the literary spirits of Dos Passos, Edgar Lee Masters, and Sherwood Anderson, among others, had give Saunders guidance from beyond in this beautifully written collage of fragments, fictional and real. Saunders’ first full-scale novel is of immense stature and immensely moving.