Title: Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
Author: George Saunders
After mastering the art of short fiction storytelling, author George Saunders has written Lincoln in the Bardo, his first full-length novel. It is one of the least conventional novels you will ever come across. Chaotic in both form and story, Saunders employs a mix of primary and secondary sources (some authentic; some completely made up) interwoven with the conversations of loitering, spirit-like entities trapped in the “bardo,” where the manifestation of their consciousness waits for their next birth. Very straightforward, right?
The story at the forefront of this madness is the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, and Lincoln’s mournful visits to his grave. Simultaneously, Willie’s spirit is floating around with all the other residents of the cemetery, as they each seek absolution in their own way. It is a powerful meditation on grief and loss, with a welcome dash of biting humor.
The unsystematic patchwork of storytelling modes is often bewildering in its construction, so, as the reader, you must (cliche alert) make it more about the journey than the destination. Despite the oodles and oodles of originality, the experience is too bizarre and unnerving for the ride to be worth it. I hope to revisit this story in audiobook form, as the star-studded voice cast may add a layer of familiarity to what is, in practice, a very alien novel.
★★★ out of 5