George Saunders’s critically-acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the story Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased son, Willie, and the events that preceded and followed his death. Set primarily in the graveyard in which Willie is buried, this novel is told from the perspective of multiple other people, some real and some fictional, some alive and some dead, with very few pages of Willie’s own perspective. It is the story of a grieving man, a loyal son, and some hopelessly obstinate ghosts.
Slight spoilers ahead.
I’ve loved George Saunders’s writing since I first heard him speak a few years ago. His stories are wonderfully absurd, oddly touching, and they move along at an unexpected and engaging pace. You’re often practically finished before you’ve even begun to realize what’s happening. Knowing this, I was curious before picking up Lincoln in the Bardo as to whether or not Saunders could draw that engaging pace out into a novel. Many times, absurdity is lovely in its brevity, and if it were to be drawn out, it would lose its appeal and become mundane, even to the point of being irritating.
The first few pages of this novel were jarring. We’re dropped into the middle of a story without being told who’s talking or where it’s set or really anything that’s going on outside of the story being told. When we are given names, nothing is cleared up. A quick google search told me that these characters were, in fact, never real people, and then we lose their perspective entirely in favor of excerpts from books and letters and journals. It probably took me near ten chapters (thirty pages) to get the hang of reading this novel. Once I did, however, it was quick and engaging, tugging on my heartstrings in unexpected ways.
In most novels that switch perspectives, I tend to skim over at least one of the perspectives because I either don’t like the character or find their contributions fairly useless to the story. Not so here. With upwards of 20 separate points of view, plus the numerous historical books from which pieces were drawn, we never spend more than two pages in the same voice. Sometimes it’s introspection, sometimes narration, sometimes speech… it’s all blurred, in the best way possible. Each voice is distinct, each character has a personality, Each excerpt tells a story that wouldn’t be quite the same story without it. Nothing is irrelevant or unnecessary.*
(*I thought the story could have done with less explicit sex. For a story that’s mostly focused on theology and philosophy, grief and death and purgatory, there was an inordinate amount of sex discussed.)
It took nearly half the book before the plot becomes in any way clear and you mostly understand what’s going on in this cemetery. But while you’re lost, you never feel disoriented. And you know that you’re no more lost than Willie is. And once the plot is made clear, once you know what the matterlightblooming phenomenon is and what exactly all these ghosts are trying to accomplish, the story is nearly through. You realize things as they do, and so you’re in the story more than you are watching it from afar.
My only complaint about this book is that many of the stories are left incomplete, especially that of the reverend everly thomas. I’ve always dislike when books introduce something that plagues a character and then don’t tell the reader what happens to the character after they face their fears. But I suppose it’s a testament to the character creation that I care at all what happens to them.
The story’s theology of purgatory and judgment is an interesting one, if not particularly holding with any religion. I’ll probably talk about that at some later point, once I’ve had more time to wrap my head around it. Suffice to say, I wish there had been an epilogue of some sort that tells us what happens after the ending. Though, in defense of the story, there probably was not any satisfactory way to wrap up every character’s story. It was a more poignant ending without closure. (I still don’t like not having closure.)
I still can’t get over how well this novel was structured.
Plot: 8/10 If I had been able to find out what happened to the reverend everly thomas, this would have been a full 10.
Writing: 10/10 Brilliant. Just… brilliant.
Intensity: 8/10 From the reviews I read, I was expecting to be more worried about the “things” that happened in cemetery. As it was, I was more invested in the characters themselves than I was in whatever was happening to them, with the exception of Willie and Abraham Lincoln.
Characters: 10/10 I can’t believe how distinct every single character sounded, and how much I cared about all of them, despite them all being varying shades of unlikable.
Interest: 9/10 It wasn’t an “I can’t put it down” book, but it was close. Despite often being confused, I wanted to know what was happening, and it always satisfied just enough.
I loved this book. I really did. As a novel, it was glorious. As a piece of writing, it was beautiful. As a story, I wanted just a little bit more from it. But, to be fair, if I had gotten a little bit more with it, I might not have been satisfied with whatever happened to the characters. All this to say, read this novel. But don’t go into it with any expectations, because it will blow all of them away.