Lincoln in the Bardo (2017, Random House) 4 stars

Lincoln in the Bardo is a 2017 experimental novel by American writer George Saunders. It …

Review of 'Lincoln in the Bardo' on 'Goodreads'

4 stars

Everyone in this book is dead. That's because it takes place a long time ago but most of them are also dead at the long-time-ago when the book takes place. Few of them are aware of it. There's plenty of evidence for it, they are in a graveyard, but just like most living people, they are in denial on the topic of death. They refer to themselves as sick, or as having had an accident. The word "dead" is avoided. Coffins are called "sick boxes." They create their own worlds out of their imaginations (just as we all do but it's more obvious for these dead people than for you and me).

This concept of death has been around for a long time (as you'd know if, like me, you read books on the occult) but Saunders has added a few features of his own. How they correspond to the Tibetan point of view ("bardo" being the term those guys use) I can't rightly say, not having looked at their Book of the Dead since the Timothy Leary days. Dealing with the afterlife has been a popular fictional trope lately in movies (e.g. The Sixth Sense) and TV (e.g. Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me), but Saunders makes is less a matter of sci-fi and more a serious thing, as we would take our own coming deaths were we not in denial, or as we experience the death of loved ones, or as then President Lincoln takes the death of union soldiers and of his son Willie.

Saunders intermixes his story with quotes of Lincoln's contemporaries and from the way they blatantly contradict each other, makes it clear that they construct worlds out of their imaginations as well. What then counts as actual history is a best fit curve that makes narrative sense (and doesn't make us hate ourselves too much).

What makes it work as a novel is the characters and their narrow obsessions and denials while Lincoln and Willie have to make peace in some way with the separation that has already occurred between then. Lincoln and Willie have to face reality, and in the process, so do many of the others, but not all of them.