Lincoln in the Bardo is a bizarre dream. I read the book by listening on Audible, which is the best way to experience the story. This book seems written to be performed. One hundred sixty-six voices contributed to the audiobook, including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and Saunders himself.
The story shuffles between Saunders’s created voices and non-fictional sources that authenticate the horrors of the American Civil War. A few chapters of fictional narrative are followed by a chapter or two of historical accounts.
The novel centers around Willie Lincoln—president Abraham Lincoln’s son—and his death during the beginning of the Civil War. The graveyard where Willie is laid to rest is also filled to the brim with ghosts who are unwilling to relinquish this life for the next. Their dialogue is the composition of the novel.
I feel like only George Saunders could examine the weight of love and death with a mob of penance-seeking ghosts. I know of no other authors who have written a story like this. It’s original.
Saunders was inspired to write his first novel by the Pietà, in which Mary is holding the body of Christ lowered from the cross. He had the idea about twenty years ago when he read accounts of President Lincoln visiting Willie’s crypt to hold his body—which is true.
From both of those inspirations—which seem very similar to one another—Lincoln in the Bardo is birthed. The best description that I have of it is that it’s a sprawling screenplay in which the dead tell their own stories. Ghosts mourn things they loved and lost in their bodily lives, and they hope to escape their “sick forms” for the physical life. In their collisions of differences as slaves, slaveholders, proletariats, and clergy, they all find themselves in the same quest to save Willie’s soul from eternal peril.
Sometimes the ghosts indwell the living characters, mixing their inner dialogues, giving them the opportunity to truly know another person—their pain, sorrows, and prejudices. These sections make up the most fascinating parts of the audio. (Imagine Nick Offerman impersonating David Sedaris.)
After listening through the book once, I found a few of those passages in a hardcover copy. A reader who arrived at that section by flipping pages might have been familiar with the tangled italics of “indwelling” ghosts, but I struggled to follow the shuffling of narrators and inner dialogues. The audio helps solve this problem, as long as the listener pays close attention for the switches. It is truly a postmodern novel—a cinematic blur of thought and action, history and fiction.
Note: Spoilers ahead.
The Redemption of Reverend Everly Thomas
Willie’s arrival to Oak Hill initiates a shift in the afterlives of the graveyard’s inhabitants, particularly after Lincoln’s first visit. Almost every ghost is deeply affected by the love Willie must have experienced during his lifetime—what else might move the president to cry and hold his son’s body as he did?
After this scene, many ghosts line up in front of Willie, confessing the suffering each experienced at the hands of another human being who championed the cursed morals of another army, race, or social class. For many ghosts the single hinge between the bardo and eternal glory is the appearance of a beloved son.
One of the novel’s central narrators, the Reverend Everly Thomas, clings (like the other ghosts) to a haunted past—including a scarring judgment, baptized by karma. The Reverend lived a morally enriched life, yet found himself lacking after his death. He discovered his purpose in an act of self-sacrifice, motivated by an urgent desire to save Willie.
While I listened, too many horrors were brought to mind: the death of a child, a bloody war, and Lincoln’s unending grief. I felt Saunders had leaned too far into darkness and wondered how he would pull his readers from the mass grave he dug for them.
I’d experienced the brutality in some of Saunders’s short fiction before, and had learned enough Civil War history to know an unresolved ending to the novel was imminent. Anything other than an untidy ending would cheapen the dark tensions of our history—many of which still exist today. Saunders is not a writer who lies about the depths of darkness. There was no way I could anticipate the moments of grace he would soon weave into the resolution.
I couldn’t help but think of The Shack, since both novels center on the same horror: the death of a child. In The Shack, a child dies and a man is tortured by guilt and shame. The man goes into the woods and discovers allegorical emanations of God that bring him comfort. In Lincoln in the Bardo, a child dies, and the love his father shows him brings hope to the dead—something they would never have experienced without the child’s arrival.
Like many, I read The Shack at a dark moment in my life. My heart was wrenched, and then I felt somewhat comforted to face life’s next difficulty. Conversely, Lincoln in the Bardo is about eschatological hope. It reminds the reader that we’re in a bardo, that beyond our present horrors, eternity is coming.
Cover image by Luís Alvoeiro Quaresma.