Saunders, George

Review of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

What was it about? 

Image result for lincoln in the bardoWillie Lincoln, the 10 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, has died. But while in the Bardo (a limbo-like state), Willie’s soul attempts to make contact with the boy’s living father. Two ghosts named Roger Bevins III (a closeted gay man who committed suicide) and Hans Vollman (a newlywed who died while lusting after his wife) narrate most of the story. They think they are only sick, so they refer to the coffin as a sick box. Bevins and Vollman have made it their mission to reconcile Willie with his father. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is experimental fiction that explores love, death, guilt, and war through the eyes of eccentric ghosts. Passages from the writings of Lincoln’s contemporaries are combined with the observations of outrageous-looking ghosts to illustrate one of the most intimate and tragic events in President Lincoln’s personal life.

What did I think of it?

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I am a sucker for experimental fiction that explores large existential questions. After all the hype surrounding this novel, I expected Lincoln in the Bardo to become one of my favorite books of 2017. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations. An experimental narrative structure can help or hurt a story. It is usually employed to explore more abstract aspects of life. When evaluating experimental fiction, I consider how the style relates to the questions or themes the novel is addressing. Lincoln in the Bardo is about one of the darkest moments in President Lincoln’s life: the death of his son Willie. The chapters that deal with Lincoln’s grief were some of my favorite chapters. I enjoyed reading Lincoln’s most intimate thoughts. The passages from contemporary writers were also quite powerful because they placed the boy’s death in the larger context of the ongoing civil war. Seen from the perspective of the civil war, Willie’s death allowed President Lincoln to experience what thousands of parents around the country were already experiencing. Unfortunately, the Bardo itself felt like a distraction from the overall story. The ghosts reminded me of the monsters in Nightmare Before Christmas. As someone who has had personal experience with the death of a child, I expected the novel to cause me to revisit certain thoughts and events. The outrageous and at times vulgar behavior of the ghosts prevented me from feeling for Lincoln’s loss. Just when the ghosts began to discuss larger existential questions, the dialogue would be interrupted by an event that had nothing whatever to do with President Lincoln or Willie. If the Bardo was supposed to serve as comic relief, it was definitely overdone. Overall, I felt that Lincoln in the Bardo was all style and little substance.

Maybe it’s not entirely the book’s fault. I picked up the novel for very personal reasons. I may not have been the intended audience. I’m interested in knowing how other readers who know something about Lincoln’s grief felt about Lincoln in the Bardo. In general, I want to know what readers thought of the ghosts. What role do you think they played in the novel? Did you enjoy the narrative style?

Favorite Quote

“What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.” 

4 thoughts on “Review of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders”

  1. Thanks for the review! Abraham Lincoln was kind of a favorite topic of mine for a while, and I was wondering if maybe I would want to read this book. Every review I’ve seen of it, though, makes me less and less enthusiastic.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it was mediocre. This is definitely book you should try for yourself. It’s a quick read. I recommend borrowing it from the library. Some reviewers (whose opinions I respect) have said this is their favorite book of the year.

  2. For me, the ridiculous, chaotic way they respond to his death was a reflection on history: we can never get close enough to feel an ounce of what he felt, and all of our knowledge of that night is conjecture filtered through third party, and altered by our own {selfish, flawed} experiences and observations. I think the novel is about the fact that we {history} feel for him, and yet we can’t possibly ever get close. A novel is chaos — other people’s bitterness and experience trying to understand and constantly shifting to private concerns. We want to experience a universal theme, but he was always separate somehow. Some enormous focal point of so, so, so many people already experiencing private grief.

    1. Ooh. I like that a lot! All our knowledge of anyone’s grief (let alone Lincoln’s) is conjecture. I guess I felt like the passages from his contemporaries’ writings captured that well enough. But that’s a really interesting thought. Thanks.

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