The New Title Tuesday recommendation, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, is in tribute to the birthday of our most honored 16th president. Be forewarned, it’s so new, that as of this writing it has been ordered, but has not yet been processed at OFPL or at many other branches. So, request early!
Publisher Summary: In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other.
February 1862. The Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son is gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory — called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo. Within this transitional state, where ghosts mingle, gripe, and commiserate, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices — living and dead, historical and invented — to ask a timeless question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
The reason I recommend this so highly is not just an honorific to Lincoln, but because this fictional exploration of love and grief is so much more than can be summarized in one sentence. And another disclosure, Lincoln is not the main character, but more the center of story. It is at times funny and Saunders begins the novel with the dead character, Roger Bevins, telling another transitional soul, Hans Vollman, about his unfortunate end as young Willie arrives.
Saunders writes Lincoln in the Bardo much like a script with ‘clips’ of news reports (some real, some invented by Saunders) that remind the reader that the Civil War rages while the Lincoln retreats into a private grieving. This format is not necessarily new, but the way Saunders pieces the voices and the reports from the living world is fresh and hypnotic. There is not one single narrator and from the beginning the reader is aware of being behind the gauzy veil that separates the living and the souls who remain in their purgatory. The souls in the bardo also recognize that children should not tarry long there.
As David Ulin said in his LA Times review, “Saunders develops his narrative in pieces, building it through the accretion of dozens of voices, all talking in tandem or on top of one another, to create a kaleidoscopic point of view.” Ulin continues, “In Saunders’ universe, there are no easy answers, no ready-made conclusions; we are all flawed and frightened human beings.”
There are big ideas in Lincoln in the Bardo. On one level, the excruciating human need to love and be loved while accepting the inevitability of death. And what does God – either Christian or Tibetan – want from us. In the novel, Lincoln acknowledges his grief is not a singular experience, but just one of thousands due to the war he declared.
Again, I am rendered incapable of stating all the reasons why, but don’t stop at go; immediately request a hold on Lincoln in the Bardo and treat yourself to this engrossing and mesmerizing read.
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Saunders:
NEW YORK TIMES One of the most important and blazingly original writers of his generation, George Saunders is an undisputed master of the short story, and — Tenth of December Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human. Unsettling, insightful, and hilarious, the stories in — —Khaled Hosseini, author of — —Mary Karr, — —Michiko Kakutani, — —People “It’s no exaggeration to say that short story master George Saunders helped change the trajectory of American fiction.”—The Wall Street Journal “An irresistible mix of humor and humanity . . . that will make you beam with unmitigated glee. (Grade:) A”—Entertainment Weekly GEORGE SAUNDERS WAS NAMED ONE OF THE 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN THE WORLD BY TIME From the Hardcover edition.